WHO chief expresses concern over coronavirus spread from people with no China travel history

World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says in an "evolving public health emergency", he calls on all countries to step up efforts to prepare for the coronavirus's possible arrival.
World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says in an "evolving public health emergency", he calls on all countries to step up efforts to prepare for the coronavirus's possible arrival.PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - The head of the World Health Organisation has warned that confirmed cases of coronavirus being transmitted by people who have never travelled to China could be the “tip of the iceberg”.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ remarks come as members of a WHO-led “international expert mission” flew to China on Monday (Feb 10) to help coordinate a response to the outbreak that has so far infected more than 40,000 people and killed 908 in the country.

“There’ve been some concerning instances of onward #2019nCoV spread from people with no travel history to (China),” Ghebreyesus tweeted Sunday, using the virus’s provisional scientific name.

“The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; in short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

While the virus’ spread outside China appeared to be slow, Ghebreyesus warned it could accelerate.

“Containment remains our objective, but all countries must use the window of opportunity created by the containment strategy to prepare for the virus’s possible arrival,” he said.

Donors have contributed toward the WHO's efforts and those directed at vulnerable countries, he says, but the organisation hasn't reached its goal of US$675 million (S$939 million) to fight the coronavirus.

WHO said in recent days there had been “some stabilising” in the numbers of new cases of the coronavirus in China. But the UN agency cautioned it was too early to say if the virus had peaked.

Outside mainland China, there have been more than 350 infections reported in nearly 30 places. There have been two deaths, one in the Philippines and the other in Hong Kong.

Several countries have banned arrivals from China while major airlines have suspended flights, and Air China cancelled some of its flights to the United States.

Ghebreyesus made a trip to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese ministers in late January, returning with an agreement on sending an international mission.

 
 

But it has taken nearly two weeks to get the government's green light on its composition, which was not announced, other than to say that WHO veteran Dr Bruce Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist and emergencies expert, was heading it. Aylward oversaw the WHO’s 2014-2016 response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

The Sars-like virus is believed to have emerged late last year in the central city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province where millions of people are under lockdown in a bid to stop it spreading.