This week it was warned that the COVID-19 coronavirus, originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan, is “rapidly becoming the first true pandemic challenge that fits the disease X category”. ‘Disease X’ is a WHO category for a previously unknown pathogen which could cause a serious international epidemic.
Writing in the scientific journal Cell, WHO advisor and head of the viroscience department of the Erasmus University Medical Center, professor Marion Koopmans contrasted the current situation with the SARS outbreak, noting that since 2003: “global air travel has increased more than 10-fold, and the efforts needed to try to contain the epidemic are daunting.” While there have also been great advances in containment methods since then, she remains cautious, concluding: “Time will tell whether the consolidated efforts of the Chinese authorities and the international public health and research community will succeed.”
As figures collated by Johns Hopkins University show, the spread of the disease outside of mainland China has picked up pace in recent days. By far the largest share of these infections have so far been reported in South Korea, but with over 650 cases now confirmed further afield in Italy – leading to lockdown areas being enforced in the north of the country – the outbreak is thought to be on the verge of being declared a pandemic.
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