China’s first death from an outbreak of secret illness

A 61-year-old man has died from pneumonia in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in an outbreak of a yet to be identified virus while seven others are in critical condition, Wuhan health authorities say.

In total 41 people have been diagnosed with the pathogen, which preliminary lab tests cited by Chinese state media earlier this week pointed to a new type of coronavirus, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said on Saturday in a statement on its website.

Two of them have been discharged from hospital and the rest are in stable condition, while 739 people deemed to have been in close contact with the patients have been cleared, it said.

The man, the first victim of the outbreak that began in December, was a regular buyer at the seafood market and had been previously diagnosed with abdominal tumours and chronic liver disease, the health authority said. Treatments did not improve his symptoms after he was admitted to hospital and he died on the evening of 9 January when his heart failed.

No new cases had been detected since 3 January, the commission added.

The Wuhan health authority also said the patients were mainly vendors and buyers at a seafood market in the city, and that to date no medical staff had been infected, nor had clear evidence of human-to-human transmission been found.

The World Health Organisation said on Thursday that a newly emerging member of the family of viruses that caused the deadly outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) could be the cause of the present outbreak.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause infections ranging from the common cold to Sars. Some of the virus types cause less serious disease, while some like the one that causes Mers are far more severe.

The outbreak comes ahead of the lunar new year holidays in late January, when many of China’s 1.4 billion people will be travelling to their home towns or abroad. The Chinese government expects passengers to make 440m trips via rail and another 79m trips via airplanes.

The Wuhan health authority also urged the public to take more precautions against infectious diseases and said it was pushing ahead with tests to diagnose the pathogen, as of Friday completing nucleic acid tests.

Hong Kong’s health department said in a separate statement on Saturday that it strengthened checks and cleaning measures at all border check points, including the port, airport and the city’s high-speed rail station, which receives passengers from Wuhan city.

In 2003, Chinese officials covered up a Sars outbreak for weeks before a growing death toll and rumours forced the government to reveal the epidemic. The disease spread rapidly to other cities and countries. More than 8,000 people were infected and 775 died.