The potentially deadly Sars virus may be declared a notifiable disease in the UK if the outbreak continues to spread, according to England's chief medical officer.
China and Hong Kong have been hardest hit
The government has so far been resisting demands to make Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) a notifiable disease which would give the authorities sweeping powers to detain suspected sufferers.
But Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson conceded on Sunday that ministers may have to review the position.
"In due course, in the long term it might be helpful to make it notifiable," he told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme.
He said that at the moment - with only six cases so far in the UK - making Sars a notifiable disease would not help prevent its spread.
In all the six cases we have had so far, none of them would have been found at exit, on the plane, or on entry
Professor Sir Liam Donaldson
There have been about 300 deaths from the virus worldwide, with nearly 4,000 confirmed cases.
On Sunday Hong Kong's health department announced another 12 deaths, taking its total death toll to 133. China announced nine further deaths.
Sir Liam said that the notification system was highly bureaucratic and that the best way to detect the disease was through continued vigilance.
"The main purpose of notification is to spot the disease early, and we think at this stage we have got the best way of spotting the disease early and we don't want to take our eye off the ball," he said.
"In all the six cases we have had so far, none of them would have been found at exit, on the plane, or on entry.
The government has now added dithering to feebleness and incompetence in its response to Sars
Shadow health secretary Liam Fox
"We found them by good detective work in Britain and that is what we need to keep up."
Last week the Conservatives called for Sars to be made a notifiable disease along with diseases such as measles, malaria, meningitis and the plague, which would allow suspected cases to be forcibly quarantined.
And on Sunday shadow health secretary Liam Fox said Sir Liam's statement confirmed the Conservative position on Sars had
been right "from the outset".
If notification "would add to the protection of the British public", he asked, "why is it not
being done immediately?"
"The government has now added
dithering to feebleness and incompetence in its response to Sars."
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Evan Harris also urged the government to "stop beating around the bush" and make Sars notifiable.
Death rate 'higher'
The director general of the World Health Organisation, Gro Harlem Brurndtland, said she believed it was still possible to contain the virus and prevent it from becoming a worldwide epidemic.
"I think we still have a window of opportunity," she told the programme.
"At the moment we still have a chance to contain it and have it go down in the places where outbreaks are already happening, and avoid it spreading to new countries.
"We are doing what is prudent and necessary from a public health knowledge base to contain a new disease before it becomes global and constant as an added burden to humanity.
Notification was introduced in 1889 as a means of identifying and preventing the spread of infectious diseases and providing legal powers
Public Health Laboratory Service
"We have a chance to do it now if we work together globally across the countries and do what is necessary to contain the outbreak."
On Saturday, a leading UK authority on infectious diseases said the virus could kill between 8% and 15% - or one in seven - of those infected.
Professor Roy Anderson, of Imperial College, is due to be publish his research in a medical journal next week.
His figure are higher than the WHO's initial predictions of 5% to 6%.
But he told the BBC that media speculation about Sars had exaggerated the problem facing the world.
"If this was a highly transmissible agent that was spreading like wildfire then of course there would be huge cause for concern, but it is not," he said.
"It appears to be contained, certainly in developed countries, by very good containment and monitoring practices."