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Calling for Global Action, WHO Chief Says World May Only Be Seeing 'Tip of the Iceberg' With Coronavirus

The outbreak, first reported in China late last year, has killed at least 910 people and infected over 40,500 others worldwide.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference following a WHO Emergency committee to discuss whether the coronavirus, the SARS-like virus, outbreak that began in China constitutes an international health emergency, on January 30, 2020 in Geneva. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

In a series of tweets about the coronavirus on Sunday, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged the international community to develop containment strategies and warned that "we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg."

As of Monday morning, the outbreak has killed at least 910 people and infected over 40,500, according to the New York Times. The vast majority of cases and deaths have been concentrated around Wuhan, China, where the virus was first reported on Dec. 31, 2019. Sunday was the deadliest day of the outbreak, killing nearly 100 people in China. There was also a surge in Chinese cases, with over 3,000 new diagnoses.

At the end of January, as Common Dreams reported, the U.N. agency declared coronavirus a global health emergency and Tedros praised the Chinese government for its efforts to contain the spread of the respiratory illness.

Earlier this year, "the Chinese authorities took the extraordinary step of closing off Wuhan, canceling planes and trains leaving the city and suspending buses, subways and ferries within it," the Times noted. "By Jan. 24, at least 12 other cities in Hubei Province had issued travel restrictions."

Despite travel restrictions and other countries' efforts to evacuate their citizens from China, the virus has spread globally. The Associated Press reported Monday that there are confirmed cases in the Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Macao, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vietnam.

After the number of confirmed cases in the U.K. doubled from four to eight, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Monday that "the incidence or transmission of novel coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health," and empowered public health professionals to forcibly detain people at a reasonable risk for the virus at one of two designated "isolation" facilities.

"NHS staff and others will now be supported with additional legal powers to keep people safe across the country," Hancock added. "The transmission of coronavirus would constitute a serious threat—so I am taking action to protect the public and isolate those at risk of spreading the virus. Clinical advice has not changed about the risk to the public, which remains moderate."

Behind China, the greatest number of confirmed cases is in Japan, with at least 161, according to the AP. Although not verified by Japan's health ministry, the Times reported that "an additional 65 cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed on a cruise ship quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, raising the total number to 135, the ship's captain told passengers on Monday."

About 3,700 passengers and crew members have been quarantined on the ship, the Diamond Princess, for the past week—since a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus. While the Japanese health ministry has said the quarantine will last through at least Feb. 19, according to the Guardian, "the World Health Organization said late on Sunday that the period could be extended 'as appropriate' for close contacts of newly confirmed cases."

As Tedros highlighted in his Twitter thread Sunday, the U.N. agency plans to convene a two-day forum in Geneva Tuesday, in collaboration with the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness, to bring together hundreds of scientists and representatives from public health agencies, ministries of health, and research funders who will establish a global research agenda for the virus and fast-track diagnostic tests, vaccines, and medicines.

"Harnessing the power of science is critical for bringing this outbreak under control," Tedros said last week in a statement announcing the forum. "There are questions we need answers to, and tools we need developed as quickly as possible. WHO is playing an important coordinating role by bringing the scientific community together to identify research priorities and accelerate progress."

As a WHO team arrived in Wuhan Monday to help battle the outbreak, Tedros said during a press briefing that the diagnoses of coronavirus for a small number of people who have no history of traveling to China "could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire. But for now, it's only a spark. Our objective remains containment."

On Twitter Sunday, the WHO chief reiterated his call for all countries to share what they know about the illness with the WHO in real time and saluted the public health professionals who are risking their personal safety to treat those who have been infected. Read the full Twitter thread below:

This post has been updated with details from a Monday press briefing.

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