The new coronavirus that has killed at least 18 people in the Middle East and Europe can likely pass from person to person, but only after prolonged contact.
The announcement that the virus is transmissible between humans came from World Health Organization (WHO) officials on Sunday. A virus in the same family triggered the SARS outbreak in 2003 after emerging in Asia. That virus killed 773 people.
French authorities also announced on Sunday that a second man was diagnosed with the disease after he shared a hospital room with France’s only other coronavirus patient.
Saudi Arabia has the largest cluster of infections so far. WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda assured that there is so far no evidence that the virus can sustain “generalized transmission in communities.” Such a scenario would raise the possibility of a pandemic.
The virus first emerged in the Gulf last year. Since then, deaths from the new coronavirus have been recorded in Britain and France. Those infected had recently been in the Middle East. Blood tests have confirmed a total of 34 cases so far. Fukuda added of the new SARS-like virus:
“Of most concern … is the fact that the different clusters seen in multiple countries … increasingly support the hypothesis that when there is close contact, this novel coronavirus can transmit from person to person.”
Fukuda called for increased “levels of awareness” for countries around the world. Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry has reported 24 confirmed cases since last summer. Of those cases, 15 have died. Three suspected cases in the country are still under investigation.
The first French patient was confirmed on Wednesday after he traveled in the Gulf. A second patient was transferred to intensive care on Sunday. The man shared a room with the first patient at a hospital in Lille. Professor Benoit Guery, head of the hospital’s infectious disease unit, explained the first many was not quarantined initially, because he presented “atypical” symptoms.
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