Chinese people return to the capital after a lengthened Lunar New Year holiday due to the threat of spreading the deadly coronavirus in Beijing on Monday, February 10, 2020. The virus killed 97 people in China on Sunday, bringing the death toll to 910 with more than 40,000 infections across 27 countries. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 10 (UPI) -- A delegation from the World Health Organization Monday is scheduled to land in Wuhan, China -- epicenter for the ongoing coronavirus outbreak -- but their exact role on the ground remains to be determined, officials said.
Representatives from the WHO first visited the region two weeks ago, a few days prior to their decision to declare the outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, a public health emergency of international concern.
At the time, leaders in the Chinese government agreed the organization could send a medical team. The visit is said to have been delayed because of their reluctance to admit they need international assistance.
Now that the outbreak has eclipsed 40,000 confirmed cases, and claimed more than 900 lives, their position seems to have changed.
"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," tweeted WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
During a press briefing Monday, he added, "It could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire. But for now it is only a spark. Our objective remains containment. We should really fight hard as one human race to fight this virus before it gets out of control."
The death toll from 2019-nCoV has already surpassed that of the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, which claimed 774 lives globally.
The WHO team is scheduled to land in China on Monday evening local time to assist in epidemic containment. The organization is concerned about the disease's potential to spread between people who haven't even visited China and its potential global impact, according to Ghebreyesus.
There have been some reports suggesting WHO officials will only be able to offer expertise and not investigate the outbreak and its origins. They did not specifically define the ground team's role Monday, but suggested that an aggressive probe of the virus' origins is vital to contain the outbreak.
The organization's team is being led by Bruce Aylward, who spearheaded its Ebola response effort from 2014 to 2016.
"This mission brings together the best of Chinese science, Chinese public health with the best of world's public health," Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, told reporters on Monday.
In addition to the China visit, WHO is also convening a two-day global research and innovation forum this week to share research and ideas on how to combat the virus, Ghebreyesus said.