Expressing concern over instances of coronavirus infection among people with no travel history to China, the head of the World Health Organization has warned that the small number of cases could be the "spark that becomes a bigger fire", urging the countries to use the "window of opportunity" to contain the novel virus that has killed over 1,000 people.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said while the spread of the respiratory disease appeared to be slow, it could accelerate. His remarks have come a day after he warned the overseas coronavirus spread may be "tip of the iceberg".
"In recent days we have seen some concerning instances of onward transmission from people with no travel history to China, like the cases reported in France yesterday and the UK today. The detection of this small number of cases could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire," Ghebreyesus said in Geneva on Monday.
He said the detection of this small number of cases for now was only a spark and the objective for countries "remains containment".
"We call on all countries to use the window of opportunity that we have to prevent a bigger fire," he said.
The death toll in China's novel coronavirus outbreak has gone up to 1,016 with 108 new fatalities reported mostly in the worst-affected Hubei province while the confirmed cases of infection have soared to 42,638, Chinese health officials said on Tuesday.
Outside China, there have been more than 350 infections reported in almost 30 places with two deaths, one in the Philippines and the other in Hong Kong.
Apart from Germany, Britain and Italy, other European nations with cases of the virus include France, Russia, Belgium, Sweden, Finland and Spain.
The overall pattern of infections has not changed, Ghebreyesus said, adding that 99 per cent of the reported cases were in China, and most cases are mild.
WHO's Director of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases Sylvie Briand said that 80 per cent of cases displayed mild symptoms, 15 per cent were severe – developing into pneumonia – and three to five per cent required intensive care.
"This is of course too many," the WHO chief said of the fatalities, noting that many questions still needed answering, such as where the outbreak was growing and where it was getting better or worse.
As part of measures to coordinate an international response to the epidemic, on Sunday, Tedros confirmed that WHO had sent an advance team of international epidemiology experts to Beijing, to assist the authorities with the outbreak.
Leading them is Bruce Aylward, a WHO veteran outbreak expert, who recently coordinated the agency's response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
His job will be to "lay the groundwork" for a larger international team of experts which is expected to follow to China, Tedros said.
WHO's other measures have included equipping laboratories in some 14 countries with kits to "fast diagnose" infections, including to Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Tunisia and Zambia. This was essential to being able to identify coronavirus infections which can resemble other respiratory bugs, the WHO chief said.
To date, WHO has identified 168 labs around as having the right technology to identify the coronavirus. On concerns that the incubation period for the coronavirus could easily be as long as 24 days, WHO's Health Emergencies Programme chief Michael Ryan said that the agency was not considering changing the current 14-day quarantine requirement period.
The UN health agency also reported that all crew and passengers on board a cruise ship harboured in Yokohama, Japan, were being quarantined for a 14-day period on board. Their quarantine period will come to an end on February 19, but will be extended for any close contacts of newly confirmed cases, WHO said.