RIYADH: The World Health Organization officials said Sunday it seemed likely a new coronavirus that has killed at least 18 people in the Middle East and Europe could be passed between humans, but only after prolonged contact.
A virus from the same family triggered the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that swept the world after emerging in Asia and killed 775 people in 2003.
On Sunday French authorities announced that a second man had been diagnosed with the disease after sharing a hospital room with France’s only other sufferer.
WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda told reporters in Saudi Arabia, the site of the largest cluster of infections, there was no evidence so far the virus was able to sustain “generalized transmission in communities” – a scenario that would raise the specter of a pandemic.
But he added: “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.”
“There is a need for countries to ... increase levels of awareness.”
A public health expert who declined to be identified, said “close contact” meant being in the same small, enclosed space with an infected person for a prolonged period.
The virus first emerged in the Gulf last year, but deaths have also been recorded in Britain and France of people who had recently been in the Middle East. A total of 34 cases have been confirmed by blood tests so far.
Saudi Deputy Health Minister for Public Health Ziad Memish told reporters that, of 15 confirmed cases in the most recent outbreak, in Al-Ahsa district of Eastern Province, nine died, two more than previously reported.
Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry said in a statement the country had had 24 confirmed cases since last summer, of whom 15 had died. Fukuda said he was not sure if the two newly reported Saudi deaths were included in the numbers confirmed by the WHO.