Coronavirus ‘could infect 60% of global population if unchecked’

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Exclusive: Public health epidemiologist says other countries should consider adopting China-style containment measures

The coronavirus epidemic could spread to about two-thirds of the worlds population if it cannot be controlled, according to Hong Kongs leading public health epidemiologist.

His warning came after the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said recent cases of coronavirus patients who had never visited China could be the tip of the iceberg.

Prof Gabriel Leung, the chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University, said the overriding question was to figure out the size and shape of the iceberg. Most experts thought that each person infected would go on to transmit the virus to about 2.5 other people. That gave an attack rate of 60-80%.

Sixty per cent of the worlds population is an awfully big number, Leung told the Guardian in London, en route to an expert meeting at the WHO in Geneva on Tuesday.

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Even if the general fatality rate is as low as 1%, which Leung thinks is possible once milder cases are taken into account, the death toll would be massive.

He will tell the WHO meeting that the main issue is the scale of the growing worldwide epidemic and the second priority is to find out whether the drastic measures taken by China to prevent the spread have worked because if so, other countries should think about adopting them.

The Geneva meeting brings together more than 400 researchers and national authorities, including some participating by video conference from mainland China and Taiwan. With 99% of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world, the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his opening remarks. To date China has reported 42,708 confirmed cases, including 1,017 deaths, Tedros said.

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People in Yokohama, Japan, look at the cruise ship Diamond Princess, where dozens of passengers tested positive for coronavirus. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters

Leung one of the worlds experts on coronavirus epidemics, who played a major role in the Sars outbreak in 2002-03 works closely with other leading scientists such as counterparts at Imperial College London and Oxford University.

At the end of January, he warned in a paper in the Lancet that outbreaks were likely to be growing exponentially in cities in China, lagging just one to two weeks behind Wuhan. Elsewhere, independent self-sustaining outbreaks in major cities globally could become inevitable because of the substantial movement of people who were infected but had not yet developed symptoms, and the absence of public health measures to stop the spread.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/11/coronavirus-expert-warns-infection-could-reach-60-of-worlds-population

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