THE number of people infected with killer coronavirus in crisis-hit Wuhan is seven times higher than reported so far, experts warn.
Scientists believe more than 75,800 people have been struck down with the new illness – yet official figures globally are just 10,000.
Experts say the “true scale of the epidemic is unclear” as not everyone with the virus will seek medical attention.
Dozens of cases may have already spread to major Chinese cities, risking further local epidemics, researchers from the University of Hong Kong warn.
What we know about coronavirus so far…
According to their new study published in The Lancet today estimates that up to 75,815 individuals have been infected in Wuhan – where the outbreak originated – as of January 25.
Senior author Professor Gabriel Leung said: “Not everyone infected with 2019-nCoV would require or seek medical attention.
“During the urgent demands of an expanding epidemic of a new virus, especially when system capacity is getting overwhelmed, some of those infected may be undercounted in official register.”
Other reasons for the discrepancy between the reported and estimated cases could be that there is a time lag between infection and symptom onset, delays in people coming forward with symptoms and the time it takes to confirm cases through laboratory testing, he said.
The modelling also suggests that cases could have spread to multiple Chinese cities in enough numbers for them to become local epidemics.
The authors caution that the true size of the epidemic and its potential to grow remains unclear.
Lead author Professor Joseph Wu said: “If the transmissibility of 2019-nCoV is similar nationally and over time, it is possible that epidemics could be already growing in multiple major Chinese cities, with a time lag of one to two weeks behind the Wuhan outbreak.
“Large cities overseas with close transport links to China could potentially also become outbreak epicentres because of substantial spread of pre-symptomatic cases unless substantial public health interventions at both the population and personal levels are implemented immediately.”
Large cities overseas with close transport links to China could potentially also become outbreak epicentres
Professor Joseph Wu
The researchers estimate each person with coronavirus could have infected up to 2-3 others on average, with the epidemic doubling every 6.4 days up to January 25.
During this period, up to 75,815 individuals could have been infected in Wuhan, they estimate.
The researchers also modelled the potential wider spread of the virus, taking into account quarantine measures and the use of face masks among the Chinese population.
Their estimates suggest dozens of cases may have spread to cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
The authors say it could be possible to contain these local epidemics if there is a “rapid and immediate scale-up of substantial public health control measures”.
Co-author Dr Kathy Leung said: “It might be possible to reduce local transmissibility and contain local epidemics if substantial, even draconian, measures that limit population mobility in all affected areas are immediately considered.
“Precisely what and how much should be done is highly contextually specific and there is no one-size-fits-all set of prescriptive interventions that would be appropriate across all settings.
“On top of that, strategies to drastically reduce within-population contact by cancelling mass gatherings, school closures, and introducing work-from-home arrangements could contain the spread of infection so that the first imported cases, or even early local transmission, does not result in large epidemics outside Wuhan.”
The outbreak has so far killed 213 people – all in China – and affected more than 9,800 people worldwide, surpassing the total from the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic.
A disturbing new report out yesterday claimed that the death toll is “way too low” – alleging that China was cremating bodies in secret.
Chinese-language news outlet Initium claimed to have interviewed people working at local cremation centres in Wuhan who said bodies were being sent directly from hospitals without being properly identified and added to the official record.
Death toll ‘too low’
William Yang, DW News East Asia correspondent, said: “There are reasons to remain sceptical about what China has been sharing with the world.”
He added that the current death toll is “way too low” for what it should be, adding how the cremation claim “makes sense”.
It comes as Wuhan’s Communist Party chief said that the city should have taken measures to contain the virus sooner.
Ma Guoqiang told state media that the impact on the rest of China and on the world “would have been less” if the containment measures had been implemented sooner.
The task of containing and preventing the spread of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan remains “severe and complex”, its mayor Zhou Xianwang said earlier on Friday.
Meanwhile, the first coronavirus cases in Britain were confirmed today.
Two members of the same family have been quarantined in Newcastle after testing positive for the killer bug.
A desperate hunt is now underway to find everyone who had contact with the victims.
Public Heath England confirmed they were staying in York when they “became unwell”.
It comes as 83 Brits – including young kids – landed at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire after being rescued from the “ground zero” epicentre of Wuhan.
They were driven to the Wirral – where they will be tested and quarantined at Arrowe Park Hospital for 14 days.
Authorities are now desperately scrambling to contain the spiralling epidemic with fears up to 2,000 could be infected in the UK.
Official advice urges anyone who has come into close contact with coronavirus sufferers to “self-isolate” to prevent the infection spreading.
Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service at PHE, said: “Public Health England is contacting people who had close contact with the confirmed cases.
“The two cases were staying in York when they became unwell.”
She added: “What they’ll be doing is aiming to contact everybody who has been in contact with these two cases and prevent onward transmission.”
It means England is the 23rd country or territory outside of China to have confirmed coronavirus cases.
Dr Michael Head, from the University of Southampton, warned how contagious and easily spread the deadly disease is.
He said: “Hopefully, as seen elsewhere, the case numbers will be very limited.
“But the key concern will be if there is significant human to human transmission.”
Official figures released today showed a total of 177 UK tests have concluded, of which 175 were confirmed negative and 2 positive.