'Never been seen before': WHO issues stark warning over coronavirus

“Never been seen before.” That’s the stark warning from the World Health Organization (WHO) as the deadly coronavirus continues to spike outside of mainland China and spread globally.

Almost nine times as many cases were reported in a 24-hour period beyond China than inside, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has confirmed.

He added that the risk of coronavirus spreading was now very high at a "global level".

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned the world is in "uncharted territory" (AP)

He said outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan were the greatest concern, but there is evidence surveillance methods are working in South Korea, the worst-affected country outside China, and the epidemic can be contained there.

"We are in uncharted territory – we have never seen before a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission but at the same time which can also be contained with the right measures," he told a news briefing in Geneva on Monday.

UK war room

The warning comes as Boris Johnson is expected to set out the UK government’s plan for containing the outbreak on Tuesday, vowing officials are “ready to take necessary steps” to contain coronavirus and protect the vulnerable.

The plan is expected to include a “war room” to bring together communications experts and scientists from across Government and the NHS to roll out a public information campaign.

Other measures could see people discouraged from unnecessary travel, workers urged to stay at home, and retired doctors and nurses asked to return to work to help deal with patients.

It is understood potential plans could include getting volunteers into public services to help out with things like delivering food to hospital patients.

Other measures could include cancelling events, and giving Border Force officials powers to act if they spot people with the virus.

Areas with confirmed cases of coronavirus (PA)

NHS ‘can’t cope’

However, many doctors are concerned the NHS is not well prepared for a coronavirus outbreak.

While Johnson has insisted the country is ready with a “fantastic” health service, the Doctors’ Association UK said less than 1% agree.

Dr Rinesh Parmar, chairman of the group – which describes itself as a campaigning and lobbying organisation made up solely of UK doctors, said there is a fear an already-stretched NHS will not cope if there is a sudden increase in coronavirus cases.

He told the Guardian: “The truth is the NHS has already been brought to its knees and many doctors fear that our health system simply won’t cope in the event of influx of coronavirus patients.

“With nearly 10,000 doctor vacancies and 43,000 nurse vacancies (in the NHS in England) the NHS is already understaffed to deal with demand.

“A&E waiting times are the worst on record. Intensive care units are at capacity and are even struggling to admit patients who are critically unwell or awaiting cancer surgery.”

World responds to global surge

The fight against the coronavirus should become a bridge for peace, Tedros added during his press conference, commending the US for supporting sending medical aid to Iran despite the tension between them.

Elsewhere, finance ministers of the G7 group of leading industrialised democracies are expected to hold a conference call on Tuesday to discuss measures to deal with the economic impact, three sources told Reuters.

The global death toll itself is now thought to be up to 3,044. 

Commuters wearing masks on a Tokyo train (AP)

Outside China, the virus has in recent days spread rapidly, now to 53 countries, with more than 6,500 cases and over 100 deaths.

The number of dead in Italy has jumped by 18 to 52. Latvia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Morocco reported cases for the first time, bringing the total to more than 60 countries with the illness known as Covid-19.

South Korea had 26 deaths and reported another 599 infections on Monday, taking its tally to 4,335 following the country's biggest daily jump on Saturday.

Of the new cases in South Korea, 377 were from the city of Daegu, home to a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, to which most of South Korea's cases have been traced.

Some members of the church visited China's Wuhan city, where the disease emerged.

The Seoul government asked prosecutors to launch a murder investigation into leaders of the church amid allegations they did not co-operate to stop the spread of the virus.

China closes coronavirus hospitals as cases drop

Wuhan, at the centre of the epidemic in Hubei province, shut the first of 16 specially built hospitals after it discharged its last recovered patients, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported.

News of the closure coincided with a steep fall in new cases in Hubei, but China remained on alert for people returning home with the virus from other countries.

The virus broke out in Wuhan late last year and has since infected more than 86,500 people, mostly in China.

Additional reporting by Tom Flanagan

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