The prospect that the new coronavirus, whose outbreak has been so far largely confined to China, could become a pandemic is seeming more likely today. This week, several countries have reported local clusters of the disease outside of mainland China, suggesting the virus is freely circulating there. Meanwhile, a new report estimates that only a third of cases that have left China’s borders are being documented at all.
On Friday, South Korean health officials reported a dramatic jump in cases of COVID-19, as the disease is officially known. There are currently 204 cases, more than double the number reported the day before. Iran’s Health Ministry reported 13 new cases on Friday, bringing Iran’s total up to 18, along with four deaths. Italy reported six new cases, all of which were not connected to travel from China.
In total, there have been close to 76,000 cases of COVID-19, with more than 2,100 deaths, nearly all in China, since the outbreak began last December. There have been more than 1,000 cases outside of China, with the largest bulk of cases—over 600—involving people onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship now being held off the coast of Japan.
These newest waves of cases in South Korea and elsewhere indicate that we’re heading into a dangerous new phase of the outbreak. The virus (formally known as SARS-CoV-2) is now routinely showing up in people who didn’t catch it from recently traveling to China. In places like Iran, we’re also seeing cases where the chain of transmission is a mystery. That means there are almost certainly blind spots where the virus is spreading in communities without detection. The more unwatched sparks of disease there are in a country, the more likely they’ll erupt into a full-blown wildfire that will sustain the outbreak and turn it into a pandemic.
Health officials from the World Health Organization are warning as much.
“I believe the window of opportunity [to contain the outbreak] is still there, but that the window of opportunity is narrowing,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference held Friday.
On Friday, epidemiologists from the Imperial College London in the UK also released their latest report on the outbreak. They concluded the strict travel restrictions and quarantines implemented in China, which haven’t come without controversy, likely did slow down the outbreak globally. But the situation still looks dire. They estimated that two-thirds of all travel-related cases exported outside the country have gone unnoticed, “potentially resulting in multiple chains of as yet undetected human-to-human transmission outside mainland China.”
Wealthier countries like the U.S. are better equipped, if not necessarily smarter, at catching these cases before they spread. But on Friday, health officials announced 19 more cases, bringing the U.S. total to 34, though the increase was largely due to passengers returning from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. But they warned that more cases would undoubtedly show up.
“This new virus represents a tremendous public health threat,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, at a press conference held Friday afternoon.
In many other countries with poorer health care systems, the point of no return will be even harder to avert. One major problem, highlighted by Tedros during the WHO’s press conference, is the lack of resources being funneled to these countries.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organization called for member countries to send it $61.5 million to help it fight the outbreak up until April 2020. But as of February 19, countries have collectively pledged to give less than half that ($26 million) and only $1.2 million has actually been received, according to the WHO. Of course, the outbreak has already hit China’s economy hard, and a pandemic will undoubtedly cost the world far more in lives and money than what the WHO is asking for now.