The World Health Organization’s director-general cautioned Saturday that transmission of the new coronavirus outside of China may increase and countries should prepare for that possibility.
“It’s slow now, but it may accelerate,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference in Geneva. “So while it’s still slow there is a window of opportunity that we should use to the maximum in order to have a better outcome, and further decrease the progress and stop it.”
Tedros’s warning came after health authorities in Singapore announced they had diagnosed the infection in a man with no travel history to China and no known link to other cases in Singapore.
Singaporean authorities suggested — but did not order — that large public events be canceled or deferred. If public events are held, temperature screening of attendees should be conducted and people who are unwell should be turned away, they said.
In Germany, health officials announced the 12th case in a cluster of transmission of the new virus — known provisionally as 2019-nCoV — that began when a Chinese woman who works for a German car parts supplier traveled to the company’s head office in Bavaria for meetings. The latest case is the wife of an employee of the company, who himself was confirmed as having the infection last week.
Also on Saturday, British health officials announced that five Britons who were at a ski resort in France were infected. The five — four adults and a child — had been in contact with a British man who had recently been in Singapore. That man was confirmed as a case on Thursday.
As of Saturday, there have been 34,598 confirmed cases in China and 288 cases reported by 24 countries outside of China, Tedros said. There have been roughly 730 deaths, most in China. It was reported Saturday that an American man who had been infected with the virus and treated in China had died.
The WHO has been insisting that containment of the virus — stopping the outbreak — was still the goal of the response. China has used unprecedented measures to try to stop the spread, including quarantining entire cities that are home to tens of millions of people.
The WHO has pointed to the fact that although cases of infection with this coronavirus have been detected outside of China, transmission of the virus in other countries has been limited.
During the press conference on Saturday, the head of WHO’s health emergencies program, Dr. Mike Ryan, said at this point it’s not clear why little transmission has occurred outside of China.
“The question remains as to whether we’re in a lag phase and the rate of infection [outside China] may pick up, or whether we’re seeing what is the natural history of the disease. It’s way too soon to tell,” Ryan said.
Infectious diseases expert Michael Osterholm warned that it is unwise to conclude that just because the world hasn’t yet seen outbreaks in other countries they won’t happen. It takes several generations of transmission — an imported case passed on to two others, who then infect two others and so on — before an outbreak takes off, he said.
“What we’re watching is the public health community trying to catch up to the speed of the virus,” said Osterholm, who is the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy.