LONDON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Britain has started random tests for coronavirus on flu patients in order to have an early warning system in place in case the outbreak becomes more widespread in the country, a senior health official said.
"We're heightening our vigilance because of the apparent spread of the virus in countries outside of mainland China," Public Health England's medical director, Paul Cosford, told BBC radio on Wednesday.
Britain has so far had 13 cases of coronavirus. An outbreak in northern Italy worsened on Wednesday, and the illness has spread to Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia and France via visitors who were recently in northern Italy.
The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.
In Britain, the random tests for the virus will be carried out at 11 hospitals and 100 general medical offices on people who have flu symptoms including a cough, plus shortness of breath and a fever.
"This testing will tell us whether there's evidence of infection more widespread than we think there is. We don't think there is at the moment," Cosford said.
"The other thing it will do is, if we do get to the position of more widespread infection across the country, then it will give us early warning that that's happening," he said. (Reporting by Sarah Young Editing by William Schomberg)