Head of WHO: We May Only Be Seeing the ‘Tip of the Iceberg’ of Coronavirus

Passengers disembark a cruise in Hong Kong after the ship sat at the dock for four days. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

On Sunday, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged all countries to “step up efforts to prepare” for the international spread of coronavirus and encouraged leaders to share information about the outbreak in “real time” with the U.N.’s agency for public health. While pushing for donors to hit the fundraising goal of $675 million, Adhanom, Ethiopia’s former minister of health, provided a disconcerting perspective: Though he reiterated his “call for calm,” he also stated that the current level of the virus’s outbreak “may only be … the tip of the iceberg.”

On Sunday, deaths from the coronavirus in China — where infections were first reported in the city of Wuhan in late December — surpassed the total from the SARS outbreak of 2002–3. To date, the Wuhan coronavirus has killed 908, while the death toll of SARS, which is a strain within the same family of viruses, reached 774 worldwide. According to China’s National Health Commission, there are currently 40,171 confirmed cases of the virus. Outside China, only two people have died from infection: one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. On Saturday, American officials confirmed that a U.S. citizen in Wuhan died from coronavirus.

Over the weekend, multiple reports from cruises under quarantine dominated the press surrounding the virus. In New Jersey, four Chinese passengers were cleared of Wuhan coronavirus after arriving in the U.S. with flulike symptoms. And while other cruises were denied entry into Guam, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, a ship owned by Princess Cruises, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined off the coast of Japan. Health officials have confirmed that a total of 70 passengers on the cruise have been infected with coronavirus, including 14 Americans. The Diamond Princess will remain under quarantine for a total of 14 days, until Wednesday, February 19. Some 3,700 passengers are on the ship, including 428 Americans.

Responding to a report that five British citizens contracted coronavirus while on a ski trip to the French alpine resort of Les Contamines-Montjoie, Foreign Policy senior editor James Palmer forwarded an idea that complements the WHO head’s suggestion that the global health crisis could worsen: “Notice how the coronavirus cases we’re seeing abroad are in the settings of the rich, such as cruise ships and ski resorts and business conferences? That probably means cases are going undetected among the poor.”

WHO Head: We May Be at ‘Tip of the Iceberg’ of Coronavirus