Coronavirus could infect more than 60 per cent of the global population if containment methods fail, a top Hong Kong medical official has warned.
Professor Gabriel Leung, chair of public health medicine in the city, also said that even if the death rate reaches just one per cent, the potential spread means it could still kill thousands of people.
There are more than 43,000 cases reported in the world so far, with more than 1,000 deaths due to the virus.
Professor Gabriel Leung, chair of public health medicine in Hong Kong and pictured at the University of Hong Kong last month, made the comments on a visit to London
There are more than 43,000 cases worldwide so far and more than 1,000 deaths
Prof Leung told The Guardian during a visit to London that the priority now is to establish the size and shape of the ‘epidemic iceberg’.
Most experts believe that each infected person has gone on to transmit the virus to around 2.5 people, giving an ‘attack rate’ of 60 to 80 per cent.
The death rate, however, is thought to be much lower. Prof Leung expects it to be around one per cent once milder cases, that have not been diagnosed, are taken into account.
‘Is 60 to 80 per cent of the world’s population going to get infected?,’ he asked, ‘Maybe not. Maybe this virus 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.’
Even if the virus reaches just one per cent, many people could still die. Pictured above are emergency workers evacuating residents from public housing in Hong Kong
After establishing the epidemic’s scale, he said they would then need to establish whether containment methods being used are effective at stopping the spread of the virus.
Governments worldwide are currently focusing on containment to prevent the spread of the virus but, if it fails, this response will switch to mitigation.
China locked-down cities infected by coronavirus, including Wuhan at the virus’s epicentre, in a desperate effort to stop the disease spreading.
Cruise ships such as the Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan have been isolated after coronavirus cases were identified, and many countries have isolated travellers returning from Wuhan and other areas of China.
There have been allegations that China has not accurately reported the spread of coronavirus and the number of people killed by it, making the virus’s ‘infection iceberg’ harder to figure out.
Wuhan medic Jeisi Luo, not his real name, warned that there are likely many more infections than reported due to limited test kits and the fact that people are dying before they are diagnosed.
Prof Leung pictured talking to journalists during a press conference in Hong Kong in January
‘When preliminary tests determine that a patient has a lung sickness, the nucleic acid test which detects the virus, cannot always be carried out because the waiting list is too long,’ he said. ‘The patient is therefore not diagnosed.’
Medics are instead dealing with the crisis by sending people home with medicine and advising them to ‘self-isolate’.
Social media reports have also alleged that China’s body burning facilities in Wuhan are working flat out, suggesting that the death toll from the virus may be significantly higher than the country has reported.