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Coronavirus: WHO warns transmission by people who had not visited China could be 'tip of the iceberg' | World news

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 members of a Who-led “international expert mission” flew to China on Monday to help coordinate a response to the outbreak that has so far infected more than 40,000 people and killed 908 in the country.

“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.”

While the virus’s spread outside China 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.

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.

But mainland China reported another rise in cases of the new virus on Monday after a sharp decline the previous day, while the number of deaths grew by 97 to 908, with at least two more outside the country.

China’s health ministry said another 3,062 cases had been reported over the previous 24 hours, raising the Chinese mainland’s total to 40,171.

Monday’s rise was a turnaround from a significant reduction in new cases reported Sunday, fewer than 2,700, that briefly prompted optimism prevention methods such as a strict quarantines may be working.

Around the country, workers have began trickling back to offices and factories as the government eased some restrictions on work and travel.

A nearly empty street is seen in a usually busy shopping district in Beijing

A nearly empty street is seen in a usually busy shopping district in Beijing Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

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.

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.

Even on Monday, a large number of workplaces will remain closed and many white-collar workers will continue to work from home.

Tens of millions of people in Hubei province were not returning to work as the province remained under lockdown with travel links cut off.

On one of the usually busiest subway lines in Beijing, trains were largely empty. The few commuters sighted during peak-hour morning traffic were all wearing masks.

Car manufacturer Volkswagen said while some of its factories would re-open 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 through the end of February.

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.

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