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It has been four months since the virus responsible for the first sustained transmission of the disease across Europe emerged, and “too early” to be quantifying its impact, a World Health Organisation panel says.

But the decision to accept WHO’s input on the virus and date a rise in mortality rates for the novel coronavirus back from July 1, to give the virus time to spread throughout the human population, may make it harder to spot future outbreaks.

Coronavirus infection, while found mainly in the Middle East, has recently been found in 33 cases of sustained virus transmission across Europe, including the first UK case detected in December, but it has so far resulted in no recorded fatalities.

The WHO panel — composed of epidemiologists, health statisticians and infectious disease scientists — considers the consequences of escalating human activity — presumably a natural assumption given the viral origins and limited human exposure so far — should a link with climate change become evident.

The committee concludes that any increases in the mortality rate for that virus would not be immediate and would probably be offset by the benefits of healthcare for the population being reduced. So it favours only a delay of six to 18 months until there is a convincing case to reflect its impact.

“Estimating the economic burden of a new virus can be quite difficult, and the evidence before us is limited,” the report concludes.

A joint WHO-Panama health ministry study of an earlier coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East in 2014 concluded “the economic impact of [then] novel coronavirus infection in the population was small”, mainly as a result of the estimated impact on healthcare and the costs of combating the virus.

The WHO committee went further in its calculation of the risk of death from new coronavirus infections. Its analysis provides for a death rate of 20 per cent among non-immune individuals in infected persons.

In contrast, WHO warned that several simple mathematical calculations could predict some level of risk for non-immune individuals, but “great uncertainty remains” in calculating death rates for immune individuals.

Coronavirus deaths have all occurred among individuals who had not been immunised against hepatitis B or hepatitis C, according to WHO.

The committee, chaired by Susan Tetzcher of New York, notes: “The burden of disease in non-immune individuals is very different in non-immune individuals versus immune individuals.”

CORONAVIRUS SYMPTOMS First symptoms are usually fever and joint pain, but symptoms worsen if they occur with vomiting and diarrhoea and then progress to a cough. Acute respiratory infections can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure. Severe respiratory illness such as pneumonia or sepsis can become life-threatening, and both lung and heart failure can occur.

The panel is reluctant to make any decisions on the spread of the virus while it is becoming known: “The increase in occurrence of coronavirus in Europe, and the particularly high frequency of deaths attributed to circovirus, does limit the time available to assess the magnitude of the new virus.”