The coronavirus could spread permanently in the human population after a leading expert described a worst-case scenario as "likely".
Jonathan D Quick, former chair of the Global Health Council, fears the outbreak will become an endemic.
Mr Quick, who collaborates with World Health Organisation (WHO), told the Guardian: "The best case is that the Chinese conflagration is brought under control, the smaller 'flames' we’ve seen flare up in other countries are extinguished, there’s little or no spread to new countries or continents, and the epidemic dies out.
"The worst case is that the outbreak goes global and the disease eventually becomes endemic, meaning it circulates permanently in the human population."
The virus broke out at the end of last year in Wuhan, China.
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The global death toll is nearing 3,000 and the number of those infected has surpassed 80,000.
Mr Quick added: "The worst-case scenario is looking increasingly likely. We’ve now seen cases on six continents, apparently 'silent' – that is, at least partly asymptomatic – chains of human-to-human transmission both inside and outside China, with additional countries reporting cases within the last week – bringing the total to 47 – and new, accelerating outbreaks in Iran, Italy and South Korea.
"If it becomes a pandemic, the questions are, how bad will it get and how long will it last?
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"The case fatality rate – the proportion of cases that are fatal – has been just over 2%, much less than it was for Sars, but 20 times that of seasonal flu.
"There are still many unknowns – we may have underestimated the period during which a person is contagious, for instance, and the variety of ways in which the virus spreads."
Earlier today, the UK government refused to rule out cutting off entire cities in the event of a worst-case scenario.
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Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "There's clearly a huge economic and social downside to that, but we don't take anything off the table at this stage – because you have got to make sure you have all the tools available if that is what's necessary.
"But I want to minimise the social and economic disruption, and at this stage we still have the hope – although the numbers elsewhere are rising fast – that we might be able to avoid this outcome."
- World Health Organisation
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