The coronavirus outbreak could last several months and its current course is unpredictable, scientists have said.
In an interview with the PA news agency, Dr Jennifer Rohn, a specialist in cell biology from University College London (UCL), said the virus was spreading more quickly than Sars but was less deadly.
She said it was difficult to know how long the outbreak would last for, adding: “It is hard to predict but, certainly, the cat is out of the bag.
“We don’t know the full picture – they are running very short on diagnostic kits in China – and the truth is we don’t know where all the people are who are infected.”
She said it was likely far more thousands of people are infected than the cases confirmed in China.
“We have to assume that the number is going to be much higher,” she said.
Dr Rohn said it was possible the virus could last several months but it could also end as the seasons change.
“Some of these respiratory viruses are seasonal – there could be a peak and then there’s a lull,” she said.
“We may have some breathing space but to be honest we don’t know yet.”
Dr Rohn said it was possible the UK already has cases of coronavirus that have not been detected.
“It is possible that somebody has slipped through the net,” she said. “The symptoms are incredibly common to lots of other things that aren’t harmful at all.”
But she added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we got a couple of cases soon.”
Earlier, Professor David Fisman, of the University of Toronto, told AFP the “best case scenario” was that the spread would last several more months.
In outbreaks of other #coronaviruses (MERS & SARS), person-to-person transmission occurred through droplets, contact and fomites, suggesting that the transmission mode of the 2019-nCoV can be similar
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 27, 2020
He said: “The best-case scenario, you would have something… where we go through the spring into the summer, and then it dies down.”
It comes as China says it has evidence that coronavirus can spread before a person shows symptoms of infection, which include sneezing and coughing,
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that of 37 cases identified outside of China, three were detected without the onset of symptoms.
This suggests people may be spreading the virus without being aware they have it.