The world is nearing the “tipping point” at which the coronavirus outbreak will become an uncontrollable pandemic, experts have warned.
Some 80,000 people have now been infected globally and more than 2,600 have died, mostly in China, according to a tracking database run by Johns Hopkins University.
At the weekend England’s chief medical officer confirmed that four people brought back to the UK from the Diamond Princess cruise ship have tested positive, bringing the British total to 13 cases. The quartet, along with 28 others, are now in quarantine on Merseyside.
Professor Paul Hunter, of the University of East Anglia, said a recent surge of cases outside China was “extremely concerning”. Infections in South Korea, Japan and Iran were causes for concern while said a cluster of cases in Italy was “a big worry for Europe”, he added.
Prof Hunter said: “The director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently spoken of a narrowing of the window of opportunity to control the current epidemic. The tipping point after which our ability to prevent a global pandemic seems a lot closer after the past 24 hours.”
And Dr Bharat Pankhania, a clinical lecturer at Exeter University, told The Daily Telegraph: “It is clear that all the important ingredients for a pandemic are now present. It’s better to be honest and say it.”
The warnings came after the WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told a meeting of African health ministers of his fears about the emergence of cases that had shown ”no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case” – especially in Iran.
On Monday Kuwait announced that it had detected its first three cases of coronavirus in people who had travelled from Iran, including a Saudi Arabian citizen. Bahrain also announced its first case, with the infected person again having travelled from Iran.
However, China has relaxed some restrictions on its citizens’ movements, including in Beijing, after rates of new infections fell. While admitting the outbreak remained “severe and complex”, premier Xi Jingping urged businesses to return to normal working patterns.
Guizhou, Yunnan, Shanxi and Guangdong provinces lowered their coronavirus emergency response measures from the highest level, joining the provinces of Gansu and Liaoning in easing travel restrictions.
The Johns Hopkins University tracking tool showed that about 25,000 people around the world had recovered from coronavirus infections.
Research released on Monday suggested that one-third of Britons would consider ceasing to travel overseas if the outbreak persisted, putting some £17bn of holiday spending on hold.
More than one-fifth, or 22 per cent, also said they would avoid using public transport.