The number of people already infected by the mystery virus emerging in China is far greater than official figures suggest, scientists have told the BBC.
There have been more than 60 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but UK experts estimate a figure nearer 1,700.
Two people are known to have died from the respiratory illness, which appeared in Wuhan city in December.
“I am substantially more concerned than I was a week ago,” disease outbreak scientist Prof Neil Ferguson, said.
The work was conducted by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, which advises bodies including the UK government and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Singapore and Hong Kong have been screening air passengers from Wuhan, and US authorities announced similar measures starting on Friday at three major airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
How were the numbers calculated?
The crucial clue to the scale of the problem lies in the cases being detected in other countries.
While the outbreak is centred on the central Chinese city of Wuhan, there have been two cases in Thailand and one in Japan.
“That caused me to worry,” said Prof Ferguson.
He added: “For Wuhan to have exported three cases to other countries would imply there would have to be many more cases than have been reported.”
It is impossible to get the precise number, but outbreak modelling, which is based on the virus, the local population and flight data, can give an idea.
Wuhan International Airport serves a population of 19 million people, but only 3,400 a day travel internationally.
The detailed calculations, which have been posted online ahead of publication in a scientific journal, came up with a figure of 1,700 cases….[ ]