Coronavirus: 60% of global population could get infected if virus isn't contained, warns expert

'Even if the fatality rate is 1%, that would still mean close to 50 million people dying' 

                            Coronavirus: 60% of global population could get infected if virus isn't contained, warns expert
(Getty Images)

The novel coronavirus that is threatening to become a global pandemic could very well become so and infect up to two-thirds of the world's population, Hong Kong's leading public health epidemiologist has claimed. So far, there have been more than 42,000 cases, most of them in China, with over 1,000 deaths. Experts fear these numbers could exponentially increase in the coming weeks and months. 

Professor Gabriel Leung, the chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University and a member of the US National Academy of Medicine, told the Guardian that the death toll for the disease risks being in the millions. "Sixty percent of the world’s population is an awfully big number," he said, adding that even if the fatality rate is as low as one percent as is being reported, that would still mean close to 50 million people would die from the coronavirus. 

Brazilian citizens coming from the Chinese city of Wuhan land and disembark at the Air Force base of Anapolis, State of Goias, on February 9, 2020, Goias, Brazil. The rescued will stay in a kind of hotel inside the Air Base for 18 days. Those who show any symptoms of coronavirus go to another building still on the air base, and if necessary they will be transferred to the armed forces hospital in Brasilia (Andressa Anholete / Getty Images)

"Is 60-80% of the world’s population going to get infected? Maybe not," he admitted. "Maybe this will come in waves. Maybe the virus is going to attenuate its lethality because it certainly doesn’t help it if it kills everybody in its path, because it will get killed as well."

Leung, one of the world's foremost experts on coronavirus epidemics, wrote in the Lancet last month that outbreaks were likely "growing exponentially" in cities in China already, and that their timeline is lagging behind Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, by just one or two weeks.

He said "independent self-sustaining outbreaks in major cities globally could become inevitable" because of not only the "substantial" movement of people that had already been infected by the virus and had not yet started showing the symptoms but also a lack of public health measures to stop the spread.

Scientists are still unsure how it spreads as well, and don't know whether the transmission is through droplets from coughs or possibly airborne particles. "It’s rather difficult to do that kind of careful detailed work when everything is raging. And unless it is raging you are unlikely to get enough confirmed cases," he said.

He expanded on the comments of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Chief of the World Health Organization (WHO), who said what they were seeing in this outbreak was still "the tip of the iceberg."

Leung, who played a major role in combating the 2002-03 SARS outbreak in China that killed 774, said experts needed to figure out the shape and size of this metaphorical iceberg.

He will also be addressing the WHO in a Geneva meeting that will bring together more than 400 researchers and national authorities, including those from mainland China and Taiwan, about the scale of the epidemic and if China's drastic containment measures have proven effective.

"Have these massive public health interventions, social distancing, and mobility restrictions worked in China?" he said. "If so, how can we roll them out, or is it not possible?"

"Let’s assume that they have worked. But how long can you close schools for?" he continued. "How long can you lock down an entire city for? How long can you keep people away from shopping malls? And if you remove those (restrictions), then is it all going to come right back and rage again? So those are very real questions."

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