Scientists previously warned that an outbreak of an as-yet unknown infectious disease could wipe out 80 million and cause a deadly pandemic. Experts fear that the new Covid-19 virus, which has already killed 2,620 people, is shaping up to fit that profile.
The virus has spread well beyond China’s tightly-restricted borders, infecting hundreds in South Korea and Japan, more than 150 in Italy, and several more across the globe.
Unlike SARS, the coronavirus replicates at high concentrations in the nose and throat, and appears capable of spreading to those who show zero or mild symptoms.
Marion Koopmans, head of viroscience at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, and a member of the WHO’s emergency committee, said this virus was becoming the first of its kind to fit the “Disease X” category.
WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “Although the total number of cases outside China remains relatively small, we are concerned about the number of cases with no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case.”
In a paper for the American Medical Association, doctors said: “Unlike SARS, Covid-19 infection has a broader spectrum of severity ranging from asymptomatic to mildly symptomatic to severe illness that requires mechanical ventilation.
“Clinical progression of the illness appears similar to SARS: patients developed pneumonia around the end of the first week to the beginning of the second week of illness.”
Prof David Heymann, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Terms such as pandemic are distracting – what is necessary is to understand the current situation in each country.
“Outbreaks must be stopped if possible, and if there is community spread also, community mitigation such as social distancing should be considered along the lines of pandemic preparedness plans for influenza that countries may decide to roll out.
“It is for WHO to determine when the outbreaks should be called a pandemic and they will do this based on information from many different sources.”
Last year, a panel led by the ex-chief of the WHO, released a stark report warning of the danger of a lethal respiratory pathogen, dubbed Disease X.
They predicted that it could kill between 50 and 80 million people across the world.
Speaking in October last year, Richard Hatchett, CEO of the CEPI, said: “We can be sure that another epidemic is on the horizon. It is not a case of if, but when.
“We need to be prepared. We need to invest in platform technologies that can be used to quickly respond to the emergence of a pathogen with epidemic potential.”
‘More Fatal Than Ebola’
In 2018, the WHO classified the impending Disease X as more deadly than Ebola and Lassa fever.
According to a report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, such a pandemic could wipe out between 50 and 80 million people, as well as five per cent of the global economy.
The report added that as the world has become increasingly interconnected, such a pathogen could spread around the globe within 36 to 50 hours
In the case of a pandemic, many national health systems – particularly in poor countries – would collapse.
The WHO also warned early last year that another flu pandemic – which is caused by airborne viruses – is inevitable, and said the world should prepare for it.
Just 12 months later, in December 2019, the outbreak of the new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China.