(CNSNews.com) – As the official number of deaths blamed on China’s respiratory coronavirus passed the 1,000 mark early Tuesday, the World Health Organization expressed concern about its spread outside the country to patients with no history of travel to China.
Five British nationals are confirmed to have contracted the 2019nCoV virus at a French ski resort, after sharing a chalet with man who attended a business conference in Singapore last month. That conference had also been attended by at least one Chinese national from Hubei province, the outbreak epicenter.
From France, the unwitting British carrier had then returned home, where he tested positive for the coronavirus.
According to the WHO, there are now 12 confirmed 2019nCoV cases associated with the Singapore conference. In addition to the British attendee and the five people infected at the French resort, another three Singapore residents, two South Koreans and a Malaysian who attended the conference are also infected.
Singapore is the country with the highest number of confirmed cases outside of China – 46 as of Tuesday. At least 19 of the cases in Singapore, according to the WHO, were locally acquired, with no history of travel to China.
In Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the new cases in Britain and France as “concerning instances of onward transmission from people with no travel history to China.”
“The detection of this small number of cases could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire,” he told reporters, “but for now it’s only a spark.”
“Our objective remains containment. We call on all countries to use the window of opportunity we have to prevent a bigger fire.”
As of Tuesday, 43,108 confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been reported, 99 percent of them in mainland China. The official death toll stands at 1,018, all in mainland China bar one in the Philippines and one in Hong Kong.
Outside mainland China the next biggest single cluster is on a cruise ship, docked and under quarantine off the coast of Japan, where a total of 135 people have been confirmed to have the virus.
A further 329 confirmed cases have been reported in 25 countries, plus Hong Kong and Macao. There are 13 confirmed cases in the United States, and American citizens are also among the infected passengers taken off the Diamond Princess ship in Yokohama, near Tokyo.
The spread of cases linked to the Singapore conference calls to mind an incident at the origin of another coronavirus outbreak, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2002-3.
A Chinese man who traveled to Hong Kong for a wedding checked into a room on the ninth floor of the city’s Hotel Metropole, where at least 20 other people on the same floor were infected, despite having no direct contact with the original man, “patient zero,” who himself died.
Those 20 others then headed for various destinations, and infected hundreds more – including in a Hong Kong hospital, Vietnam, Singapore, and Canada.
In a case thought linked to a patient treated at that same Hong Kong hospital, a residential estate in the city called Amoy Gardens would later account for 329 SARS cases, and 42 deaths.
SARS eventually spread to almost 30 countries, infecting 8,098 people and killing 774. Health experts referred to the Hong Kong hotel episode as a “super-spreading event.”
Asked in Geneva Monday whether WHO was concerned that the Singapore conference may be a similar event, the executive director of WHO’s emergencies program, Michael Ryan, said that would be an exaggeration.
He noted that 12 cases have been linked to the conference, “so we’re not dealing here with a super-spreading event” like Metropole Hotel or Amoy Gardens.
“But certainly it is always a concern when people come together and then move apart, and we have to have risk-management procedures associated with that,” Ryan said. “But you can’t shut down the world either. Normal activity must go on.”