The head of the World Health Organization has warned that confirmed cases of coronavirus being transmitted by people who have never travelled to China could be the “tip of the iceberg”.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ remarks come as China attempted to return to some form of normalcy, with people returning to work on Monday as an extended Lunar New Year break ended.
“There’ve been some concerning instances of onward 2019nCoV spread from people with no travel history to [China],” Ghebreyesus tweeted on Sunday, using the virus’s provisional scientific name.
“The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; in short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he added.
On Monday, members of a WHO “international expert mission” flew to China to help coordinate response to the crisis, which has infected more than 40,000 people and killed at least 908. China reported 97 new deaths on Sunday, its largest death toll in a single day since the outbreak was first detected in December.
Around the country, workers have began trickling back to offices and factories as the government eased some restrictions on work and travel. In Beijing, roads were busier than they have been in the last few weeks but normally packed trains were nearly empty. The few commuters seen on the street or using public transport were all wearing face masks. Many businesses have asked their staff to work from home.
Authorities had told businesses to tack up to 10 extra days on to lunar new year holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January. The epidemic has caused huge disruptions in China with usually teeming cities becoming virtual ghost towns during the past two weeks as Communist party rulers ordered virtual lockdowns, cancelled flights, closed factories and shut schools.
The southern city of Guangzhou said it would start to resume normal public transport from Monday. Hubei province, which has been hardest hit by the crisis, remains in lockdown, with train stations and airports shut and roads sealed off.
Despite government efforts to soothe the public about returning to work, some have expressed concern. In response to a discussion topic on Weibo: “Why do you want to go back to work,” one user wrote: “Who says I want to go back to work?
“Of course we’re worried,” said a 25-year-old man surnamed Li in a beauty salon in Beijing, which reopened Monday. Li said the salon takes the temperature of all customers and asks them to wash their hands.
Others were relieved to leave their homes after weeks of self-quarantine.
“Because going to work is normal life. Every day that I don’t go out and stay at home, I feel like people are going to die,” one commentator said.
The car manufacturer Volkswagen said while some of its factories would reopen on Monday, others had delayed production for another week. Toyota has extended the closure of its Chinese plants to 16 February.
Across China, schools in provinces and regions such as Guangdong, Anhui, Zhejiang, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Hebei, Jiangxi, and Inner Mongolia, as well as Shanghai and Chongqing will be shut until the end of February.
Mainland China reported another rise in cases of the new virus on Monday, including 97 new deaths, the largest single-day increase since the outbreak began and bringing the total number of casualties to 908. More than 3,000 new cases had been reported over the previous 24 hours, raising the number of infections to 40,171.
The uptick follows after a sharp decline in new cases reported on Sunday, less than 2,700, which prompted optimism prevention methods such as a strict quarantines may be working.
China’s ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming told the BBC on Sunday: “At this moment is very difficult to predict when we are going to have an inflection point.” He added: “We certainly hope it will come soon, but the isolation and quarantine measures have been very effective.”
Outside mainland China there have been more than 350 infections reported in nearly 30 places. There have been two deaths, one in the Philippines and the other in Hong Kong.
While the virus’s spread outside China has appeared to be slow, Ghebreyesus warned it could accelerate.
“Containment remains our objective, but all countries must use the window of opportunity created by the containment strategy to prepare for the virus’s possible arrival,” he said.
An advance team of international experts led by the WHO is heading for Beijing to help investigate the epidemic.
But it has taken nearly two weeks to get the government’s green light on its composition, which was not announced, other than to say that WHO veteran Dr Bruce Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist and emergencies expert, was heading it.
The WHO declared the outbreak a global emergency on 30 January, days after the Chinese central government imposed a lockdown on 60 million people in Hubei province.