Yokohama (Japan): Relatives of passengers wave towards the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with 3600 passengers quarantined because of the coronavirus, as it departs Yokohama to dump waste water and generate potable water.—AFP
Yokohama (Japan): Relatives of passengers wave towards the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with 3600 passengers quarantined because of the coronavirus, as it departs Yokohama to dump waste water and generate potable water.—AFP

BEIJING: The death toll from the novel coronavirus outbreak surged past 1,000 in China on Tuesday as the World Health Organisation warned that the epidemic poses a “very grave” global threat.

The WHO is holding a conference in Geneva on combatting the virus as Beijing struggles to contain a disease that has now infected more than 42,000 and reached some 25 countries.

Another 108 deaths were reported on Tuesday — the first triple-digit daily rise since the virus emerged in late December.

“With 99 percent of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the conference, where the virus was officially named “Covid-19”.

However, he remained optimistic that there was a “realistic chance” of stopping the virus.

“We have to use the current window of opportunity to hit hard and stand in unison to fight this virus in every corner. If we don’t we could have far more cases and far higher costs on our hands,” he said.

Chinese authorities have locked down millions of people in a number of cities, while several governments have banned arrivals from China and major airlines have suspended flights in a bid to keep the disease away from their shores.

The death toll has now reached 1,016, although the mortality rate remains relatively low at 2.4 percent.

But the case of a British man who passed on the virus to at least 11 other people —without having been in China — has raised fears of a new phase of contagion abroad.

The 53-year-old — dubbed a “super-spreader” by some British media — said he had fully recovered, but remained in isolation in a central London hospital.

Most cases overseas have involved people who had been in Wuhan, the quarantined central Chinese city where the virus emerged late last year, or people infected by others who had been at the epicentre.

But the Briton caught the virus while attending a conference in Singapore and then passed it on to several compatriots while on holiday in the French Alps, before finally being diagnosed back in Britain.

“The detection of this small number of cases could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire,” Tedros said on Monday, urging countries to seize on the “window of opportunity” to prevent a bigger outbreak.

Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said it was “way too early” to call the Singapore conference a “super-spreading event”.

As the number of cases in Britain doubled to eight, the government called the novel coronavirus a “serious and imminent threat”, and said anyone with the disease could be forcibly quarantined if deemed a threat to public health.

The biggest cluster of cases outside China is aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship moored off Japan, where 135 people have been positively diagnosed.

The ship has been in quarantine since arriving off the Japanese coast early last week after the virus was detected in a former passenger who disembarked last month in Hong Kong.

More than 100 people were evacuated from a 35-storey Hong Kong housing block Tuesday after two residents in different apartments tested positive for the virus.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2020