'Disease X' warning: Rapid spike in coronavirus deaths trigger new fears

Tom Flanagan
News Reporter

A World Health Organisation advisor has said the deadly coronavirus outbreak is “rapidly becoming” the world’s first pandemic that fits the category of ‘Disease X’ officials previously warned about.

With more than 2600 deaths from the virus and a concerning spike in cases in Italy, South Korea and Iran in recent days, including a combined 27 deaths for the three nations, there is a renewed sense of global fear over the virus that has seen 30 other countries confirm cases.

There are now over 80,000 confirmed global cases – 77,658 of those in mainland China.

And despite WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus previously saying the WHO was reluctant to name such an outbreak a pandemic, he has said the world must prepare for it now reaching that point.

“We must focus on containment, while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic,” he said from Geneva.

Italian soldiers wearing sanitary masks patrol Duomo square in downtown Milan on Monday. Source: AP

WHO advisor Marion Koopmans, a professor of viroscience at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, said the outbreak of COVID-19 was quickly developing into an epidemic the WHO said they were preparing for in 2018.

“Whether it will be contained or not, this outbreak is rapidly becoming the first true pandemic challenge that fits the disease X category, listed to the WHO’s priority list of diseases for which we need to prepare in our current globalised society,” she said in the scientific journal Cell.

WHO stated in 2018 among a list of research and development priorities that there was evidence “a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease".

Professor Koopmans said the outbreak shares similarities with SARS however the increase in air travel since 2013 was particularly “daunting”.

She also echoed Tedros’ sentiments that the response outside of China at times hasn’t been as urgent as required.

Professor Koopmans said public health experts were "wasting precious time writing grant applications to do what we long know needs to be done".

Italy calls for calm despite further deaths

While Italy reported its seventh death from the new coronavirus on Monday, officials called for calm and reported a lower rise in the number of infections after a spike over the weekend.

The number of cases now stood at 229, the head of Italy's civil protection department Angelo Borelli said at a press conference on Monday evening, the highest number in Europe.

However, this means that only 10 new cases had been added since the previous total on Monday morning, a much slower rate than the previous few days.

Supermarkets have been stripped bare in northern Italy. Source: Getty
A rescue worker, wearing a protective suit, talks to an Italian Guardia di Finanza officer at a road block on Monday. Source: Getty

"I think the numbers that we have registered in Italy and in the rest of the world have been confined to reasonable figures," Borelli said, adding that in his opinion the data did not point towards an impending pandemic.

Six of the dead have been in the northern Lombardy region, where villages have been put under lockdown and security measures enforced in a bid to stem the spread of the disease.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said that residents could face weeks in lockdown in an effort to sit out the virus.

The measures imposed in the country's north affect some 30 million inhabitants, the Repubblica daily said.

The spread of the virus has disrupted high-profile events including Milan Fashion Week and the Venice Carnival. On Monday evening, sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora announced that six Serie A football matches would be played behind closed doors.

Outbreak ‘tipping point’ edging closer

Despite Italy playing down the threat the virus poses, the significant spike outside of mainland China and being the first European nation to suffer multiple deaths has prompted experts to warn of a tipping point in the progression of the virus.

Italy’s outbreak coincides with a concerning spike in deaths in Iran and South Korea.

There have been 12 deaths in Iran however government officials have hinted the number may be closer to 50, the South China Morning Post reported.

South Korea has confirmed eight deaths from coronavirus with the number of confirmed cases rising to nearly 900.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, referenced Tedros’ previous warning that the window of opportunity in containing the virus was running out when issuing his own words of concern, The Guardian reported.

“The tipping point after which our ability to prevent a global pandemic ends seems a lot closer after the past 24 hours,” he said.

“The identification of the large cluster of cases in Italy is a big worry for Europe and we can expect there to be quite a few more cases identified in the next few days.”

With AFP

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