Dubai: Two more people have died of the deadly Sars-like coronavirus respiratory infection in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Health Ministry reported on Sunday.
The deaths brought the toll in the kingdom to nine, of 15 cases confirmed in total, Deputy Health Minister Ziyad Memish said.
The two people died in the eastern Al Ahsa region.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health invited the World Health Organisation (Who) to help assess the situation and to provide guidance and recommendations.
One of the reasons why more cases have been identified in Saudi Arabia may be because authorities there have strengthened their surveillance system, lab capacities and network, Who said in a statement.
It reported 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 Sars 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 “generalised transmission in communities” - a scenario that would raise the spectre 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,” he said.
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 cases have also been recorded in Britain and France among people who had recently been in the Middle East. A total of 33 cases worldwide have been confirmed by blood tests so far.
Memish added that three suspected cases in Saudi Arabia were still under investigation, including previous negative results that were being re-examined.
The first French patient was confirmed as suffering from the disease on Wednesday after travelling in the Gulf. The second patient was transferred to intensive care on Sunday after the two men shared a room in a hospital in Lille.
Professor Benoit Guery, head of the Lille hospital’s infectious diseases unit, said the first patient had not been immediately isolated because he presented “quite atypical” symptoms.
He added in comments broadcast by BFMTV channel the case suggested that airborne transmission of the virus was possible, though still unusual, and that the public “should not be concerned” as there had been only 33 cases globally in a year.
Fukuda, part of a Who team visiting Saudi Arabia to investigate the spread of the disease, said although no specific vaccine or medication was yet available for novel coronavirus, patients were responding to treatment.
“The care that is taken in the hospitals, in terms of using respirators well, in terms of treating pneumonia, in terms of treating complications, in terms of providing support, these steps can get patients through this very severe illness,” he said.
Fukuda said that as far as he knew all cases in the latest outbreak in Al Ahsa district were directly or indirectly linked to one hospital.