BEIJING • Health authorities in central China yesterday reported the first death from a mysterious pneumonia outbreak, blamed on a new strain of virus from the same family that causes Sars.
The death comes just as many people in the country begin returning home for the Chinese New Year.
The victim was a 61-year-old man who died on Thursday from severe pneumonia after his heart stopped, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said, adding that he had abdominal tumours and chronic liver disease.
The man, who did not respond to treatment, was a regular patron of the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, said the health commission.
The market is at the centre of the mysterious outbreak with most of the confirmed cases being workers or frequent visitors. It has been shut down since Jan 1 for further investigations and disinfection.
Forty-one people have been diagnosed with the mystery virus - of which one has died, seven are in serious condition, two have been discharged while the rest remain under isolation in hospital.
The health commission noted that no new cases had been discovered since Jan 3 and that there had been no clear evidence of transmission between humans, including infections among medical staff.
"Our city will continue to strengthen patient treatment and epidemiological investigations, carry out in-depth patriotic health campaigns, do a good job in spreading knowledge of disease prevention, and safeguard the health of the people," an official statement said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Thursday that a newly emerging strain of coronavirus, the same virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), could have caused the current outbreak.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause a variety of infections ranging from the common flu to more severe cases like Mers.
The spate of cases in China comes just days ahead of the Chinese New Year holidays in late January when millions of Chinese will be on the move, travelling home or abroad in the largest annual human migration in the world.
The Chinese government expects passengers to make 440 million trips via rail and another 79 million trips via air, officials told a news briefing on Thursday.
While the WHO has said that there is no need for travel restrictions, there are fears the mass movement raises the chance of people serving as carriers and spreading the virus.
Hong Kong's Department of Health said in a separate statement on Saturday that it has strengthened checks and cleaning measures at all border checkpoints, including the port, airport and the city's high-speed rail station which receives passengers from Wuhan.
A leading infectious disease expert in Hong Kong yesterday also said the Wuhan virus has a genetic makeup that is "80 per cent similar" to the Sars virus.
The University of Hong Kong's Professor Yuen Kwok Yung yesterday said the difference between the two lay in the part of the virus that determines if it can "enter animal cells".
"The genetic sequence of the virus could change, and that would completely change its toxicity and infectiousness," he said, adding that the genetic sequence of the Sars virus changed in 2003 and was thus able to spread among humans.
In Singapore, the Ministry of Health said yesterday that a second suspected case - a 26-year-old Chinese national with pneumonia and travel history to Wuhan - was found not to be linked to the pneumonia cluster in Wuhan. The patient has also tested negative for coronavirus.
Last week, a three-year-old girl, also with a travel history to Wuhan, was kept in isolation until it was proven that she was not infected by the new virus.