INTERVIEW-Coronavirus outbreak 'just beginning' outside China, says expert

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By John Geddie

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The coronavirus epidemic may be peaking in China where it was first detected in the central city of Wuhan but it is just beginning in the rest of the world and likely to spread, a global expert on infectious diseases said on Wednesday.

The Chinese government's senior medical adviser has said the disease is hitting a peak in China and may be over by April. He said he was basing the forecast on mathematical modeling, recent events and government action.

Dale Fisher, chair of the Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network that is coordinated by the World Health Organization, said that predicted "time course" may well be true if the virus is allowed to run free in Wuhan.

"It's fair to say that's really what we are seeing," he told Reuters in an interview. "But it has spread to other places where it's the beginning of the outbreak. In Singapore, we are at the beginning of the outbreak."

The flu-like virus has killed more than 1,100 people and infected nearly 45,000, predominantly in China and mostly in Wuhan.

Singapore has reported 50 coronavirus cases, one of the highest tallies outside China, including mounting evidence of local transmission.

"I'd be pretty confident though that eventually every country will have a case," Fisher said.

Asked why there were so many cases in Singapore, he said there were comparatively more tests being conducted on the island.

"We have a very low index of suspicion for testing people so...we do have higher ascertainment," he said, but added that there was a lot about transmission of the virus yet to be understood.

Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at Singapore's health ministry, told a news conference it was difficult to be confident in projections that the epidemic will peak in China this month but, in any case, peaks in other countries will lag China by one or two months.

Fisher said there was no justification for the kind of panic buying of essentials like rice and toilet rolls seen in Singapore.

"There's no suggestion we are going to run out of anything," he said. "I would just stay level-headed."

He said the elderly and those with diabetes were most at risk of serious illness.

"For the vast majority of people it will just be a mild illness but still treat it with respect," Fisher said.

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