Since then, the number of confirmed cases reported in mainland China has more than quadrupled to more than 44,653. As of Wednesday morning, more than 1,100 people had died from the virus, while 4,740 patients had recovered and been discharged from hospital.
While the majority of cases outside of mainland China have so far been connected to travelers from China, or those who have have recently been there, a small but growing number of patients have caught the virus locally.
That’s worrying, because if self-sustaining outbreaks start occurring in nations with poor healthcare systems, the impact could be devastating.
“It’s an enormous concern,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.
“We still don’t have a clear picture of how likely that is, but given transmissions dynamics in China and the speed with which cases have emerged in other countries, global spread seems highly plausible.”
If China is struggling, how will other nations cope?
Authorities in China have suspended public transport and sealed off entire cities at the epicenter of the outbreak, effectively putting 60 million people on lockdown. They’ve built two new hospitals in less than two weeks, and dispatched thousands of medical workers to Wuhan.
“If China is struggling to contain this, weaker countries will have an even harder time. And that suggests that the kind of transmission we’re seeing in China might soon be mirrored elsewhere,” said Konyndyk.
Where are the biggest concerns?
Countries close to China in Southeast and East Asia have borne the brunt of the infections outside of the mainland, with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand seeing local transmissions.
Some of those nations with coronavirus infections and their neighbors are among the poorest and most disaster-prone countries in the world.
Natural disasters in the Philippines already cause millions of dollars in damage and displace thousands each year.
To date, one person has died in the Philippines from coronavirus — the first death outside mainland China — and three people have been confirmed to have contracted the virus.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to 60% of the world’s population — many of those countries are low or middle-income nations that are quickly industrializing.
Population booms and the migration of millions of people from rural areas to overcrowded cities with underdeveloped infrastructure and a lack of sanitation could further aggravate the spread of viruses.
While millions of people have lifted themselves out of poverty in India over the past 20 years, millions of others have been left behind.
Densely-packed city slums where thousands of people live in close proximity to one another in often sub-standard conditions could make it difficult to control a virulent viral outbreak.
Smaller, sparsely populated nations in the Pacific Ocean are also extremely vulnerable to an outbreak, though coronavirus has not been confirmed on any of these territories.
Some countries have not yet reported any cases, including Indonesia, a nation of 264 million, which typically receives large numbers of Chinese tourists. Likewise, no confirmed cases have been reported in Myanmar, which borders China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos.
Frontline workers risk their lives
One of the biggest concerns of a global spread would be the threat of contagion to frontline health workers, said Konyndyk from the Center for Global Development.
“Infection prevention procedures in the developing world tend to be poorly managed and weakly resourced,” he said.
“Health worker infections are a huge blow, because beyond adding to case counts, they degrade the health system’s capacity to fight the outbreak and they undermine the health system’s work on a range of other health risks as well,” Konyndyk said.
Community distrust of medical workers in some places could be disastrous, potentially leading more deaths and further spreading the virus.
“Spread of this novel coronavirus to such an area would easily overwhelm their testing and treatment capabilities without international assistance,” said Courtney Kansler, Senior Health Intelligence Analyst with WorldAware.
“Venezuela is another good example, where there is a near-complete lack of basic medical services and healthcare infrastructure nationwide,” she said.
Currently there is no evidence of confirmed coronavirus cases on the African continent or in South America.
World not ready for a pandemic
But as more countries shut their borders to travelers from China, there are concerns the restrictions will hinder sharing of public health data, or disrupt supply chains.
But while there have been big advances in transparency, data sharing, and research tools, “the world remains meaningfully unready for a dangerous pandemic,” said Konyndyk.
“Our existing medical and public health systems would be overwhelmed rapidly and there is no clear plan-B scenario for what countries should do once that happens,” he said.