BEIJING/GENEVA • The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the spread of coronavirus cases among people who have not been to China could be "the spark that becomes a bigger fire", and the human race must not let the epidemic get out of control.
As scientists race to develop tests and treatments, the WHO said that 168 labs globally have the right technology to diagnose the virus. More companies have been struggling to find clinical virus samples to validate the tests they have developed.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there had been "concerning instances" of transmission from people who had not been to China. "It could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire," he told reporters in Geneva.
"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."
An advance team of international WHO experts have arrived in China to investigate. "This mission brings together the best of Chinese science, Chinese public health, with the best of the world's public health," said WHO emergency programme head Mike Ryan.
The WHO convened a two-day meeting yesterday featuring hundreds of researchers and manufacturers to address the outbreak.
Researchers are working to develop antibody tests that can tell whether someone has been exposed to the virus. They could help answer how broadly this virus has spread, and whether there are milder cases not being detected, Dr Ryan told reporters.
At present, most of the testing is being done by public health laboratories. But several companies, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, GenScript Biotech and Co-Diagnostics, have developed tests and are taking steps to get them validated for clinical use.
Roche is distributing coronavirus tests developed by Tib Molbiol of Berlin for research use on some of its instruments while developing a test of its own.
Abbott Laboratories is also working on a test.
The WHO has activated a network of 15 referral laboratories that can support national efforts in confirming new cases.
For the 168 labs globally with the technology to diagnose the virus, technicians must be trained to run the tests locally to avoid delays associated with having to send them to centralised labs.