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Europe could see other surprise coronavirus outbreaks like Italy’s, WHO chief warns

Tourist wearing a protective respiratory mask tours outside the Colosseo monument (Colisee, Coliseum) in downtown Rome on February 28, 2020 amid fear of Covid-19 epidemic.

Andreas Solaro | AFP | Getty Images

The World Health Organization’s director-general cautioned Sunday that other countries within the European Union might see coronavirus outbreaks similar to the rapid spread seen in Italy.

Italy has 1,128 confirmed cases as of Sunday, according to the WHO, which is the largest in Europe and the third largest globally. Infections are now being seen beyond the original epicenter in the north, with cases in Tuscany, Le Marche, Emilia Romagna, Alto Adige, Piedmont, Liguria, Lazio and Sicily, far south of the capital in Rome. 

“Europe may have some surprises like Italy. You know, other developed countries in Europe may have surprises,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble during a panel discussion at the King Salman Humanitarian Aid Center’s International Humanitarian Forum in Riyadh.

The rapid spread of the virus in Italy has surprised many as the country had just three confirmed cases on Friday February 21. Notably, the authorities were unable to quickly locate “patient zero,” the first carrier of the virus in the country, which could have accelerated the spread. 

The outbreak has caused tension between the government in Rome and regional authorities, particularly in the north, and especially after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte suggested that an unnamed hospital had not followed the correct procedure to deal with the outbreak.

Ghebreyesus caveated, however, that Europe as a region has “strong institutions” in place to deal with such incidents. “It’s not just about Italy. There could be surprises in other European countries in the neighborhood … But even for Italy, since they have strong institutions, I know they will manage it as quickly as possible,” he told CNBC.

Asked whether that meant the EU shutting borders within the bloc, he replied: “There are many ways. By the way, there are many strategies that we use. And the country should assess its situation, understand the risk, assess the risk, and then take measures proportionate to the risk. It will be, it’s up to the country.”

The virus has affected all aspects of Italian cultural life, from the early shutdown of the Venice Carnival to the closure of churches. Italy’s top-flight Serie A soccer league saw more matches postponed this weekend due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Juventus vs. Inter did not take place, along with four other matches.

–CNBC’s Holly Ellyatt contributed to this article.