'Big unknown': Coronavirus expert's daunting prediction for 60 per cent of world's population

·3-min read

A leading coronavirus expert who led the fight against SARS 18 years ago has warned the rapid spread of the current deadly virus could infect up to 60 per cent of the world’s population.

Professor Gabriel Leung, chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University, made the alarming prediction on Nine’s 60 Minutes on Sunday night, with the virus’ death toll of 3800 continuing to eclipse that of SARS.

One of the most concerning aspects of the coronavirus outbreak is its ability to spread much quicker than SARS, which spread to 27 countries. Coronavirus has already hit at least 95.

Gabriel Leung led the fight against the SARS outbreak. He is now warning of the coronavirus.
Gabriel Leung is a leading expert on virus outbreaks. Source: 60 Minutes

“[Coronavirus is] certainly more infective (than SARS) and it’s also very difficult to try to control it,” Prof Leung said.

And while the estimated mortality rate is far lower than that of SARS, he believes coronavirus could be contracted by more than half of the world’s population.

“Everybody is susceptible. If you assume that everybody randomly mix with each other, then eventually you will see 40, 50, 60 per cent of the population get infected,” he said.

“The big unknown now is really how big is the iceberg.”

South Korean soldiers disinfect streets in Seoul.
South Korean soldiers disinfect streets in Seoul. Source: Getty Images

World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters last week the current mortality rate sits at 3.4 per cent globally.

If 60 per cent of the world’s population contract the virus at that mortality rate, there will be more than 140 million deaths.

However, experts have indicated the mortality rate outside of China has been and will be much lower.

The University of Queensland’s virologist Ian Mackay has previously predicted a mortality rate of about one per cent.

Prof Leung’s prediction would mean about 42 million would die from the virus.

Act now, expert warns

He said no country appeared to have completely contained the virus and that strict prevention measures, similar to the unprecedented moves China initiated early in the outbreak, were needed to curtail its spread further.

“There is now an emergency going on and what we must do is very rigorous infection control,” he said, adding the world needed to be prepared for a potential second wave of the virus.

Two women pictured wearing masks in Venice as the coronavirus outbreak continues.
Two women pictured wearing masks in Venice. Source: Getty Images

As cases in the European epicentre of Italy continue to soar, such measures were implemented over the weekend by the government, with 16 million people in the country’s north placed into lockdown.

“Now is the time to really pull out all the stops, put everything you got into it to fight it. We have to give it the whole-of-government approach,” Prof Leung added.

“Give it all you got, throw everything at it quick and early and hard. That will buy you sufficient time and if you’re extremely lucky, you might even be able to contain it.”

So far 78 Australians have tested positive for coronavirus with that number expected to rise significantly. There have been three deaths.

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