The UK’s exposure to a full-blown coronavirus epidemic will ultimately depend on China’s ability to contain the current outbreak, but more cases in this country are “highly likely”, chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty has warned.
After the nation’s ninth case of the virus was confirmed, Whitty said he had already briefed prime minister Boris Johnson on contingency planning for the virus and attended “dull but worthy” Cobra meetings at official level.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Whitty unpacked the government’s four-point strategy for dealing with the outbreak, and said that a 2% mortality rate among those infected was a reasonable worst-case scenario that the NHS had to plan for.
The chief medical officer said that in a best-case scenario, China would get on top of the epidemic, meaning that although there would continue to be “spill-over cases” around the world, they could be contained.
“We’ll have more cases in the UK – that’s highly likely,” he said of the scenario.
“We may even get a bit of onward transmission in the UK, and then we’ll be able to pick up on those. And then the epidemic goes away. That is possible.”
Whitty said the alternative scenario was that it was not possible to contain coronairus in China.
“It then starts to spread – possibly initially quite slowly – around the world,” he said.
“Then, at that point, unless the seasons come to our rescue, it’s going to come to a situation where we have it in Europe and in the UK in due course.”
Whitty said the government was currently working to a four-point strategy to deal with the unfolding threat.
“The first one is to contain; the second of these is to delay; the third of these is to do the science and the research; and the fourth is to mitigate so that we can actually brace the NHS,” he said.
The chief medical officer said the government now needed to do “a lot of planning” for its delay tactics.
“If we are going to get an outbreak here in the UK, and this is an ‘if’ not a ‘when’, but if we do, pushing it back into the summer period, away from the winter pressures on the NHS could buy us a bit more time to understand the virus better,” he said.
“There’s clearly a lot of research that we’re having to do at the moment. People talk about vaccines: it will be a long time in my view until we have a vaccine that is ready to deploy, but we need to get on with that.”
Whitty said the Chinese were already starting to look at the use of antivirals, such as those prescribed to people who are HIV positive, to explore whether they may also be effective against coronavirus.
“Some may, some may not,” he said. “There’s just been a big WHO meeting yesterday and the day before that went through those.”
Whitty said most people who tested positive for coronavirus would have relatively mild symptoms, and that drugs were only likely to be useful for a minority of more severe cases.
The chief medical officer refused to speculate on the potential scale of any epidemic in the UK and noted that too little was currently known about coronavirus to make proper assessments.
“The thing with this epidemic, were it to happen, is that we obviously don’t know how big the peak would be and – absolutely critically – we don’t know what proportion of people have this disease without symptoms,” he said.
“We don’t yet have a test to tell how many people are infected. Until we do that, we only have a best estimate.”
He said his current “best estimate” for a mortality rate was around 2% at the “top end” of the range.
“It could be considerably less than that, but we should plan for the worst,” he said.
“We have to work out how the NHS is best configured to cope with all the various scenarios that come out.”
Asked whether officials would automatically contact all people who had travelled on a plane with a passenger who subsequently tested positive for coronavirus, the chief medical officer said such a move would “not necessarily” happen.
“One of the things we know from coronavirus from other coronaviruses is that the amount of spread around a person is relatively limited, in a geographical sense. So you wouldn’t necessarily have to do that,” he said.
“What you’re trying to do is to make sure that people who have a significant risk of getting infected are contacted and isolated early, usually by self-isolation. And that other people do not have their lives interfered with completely irrationally because they are not at risk.”