China reports first death from mystery pneumonia outbreak

Virus linked to illness is from the same family as SARS and appeared as China prepares for peak travel season

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, right, speaks next to Wong Ka-hing, the Controller of the Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health during a press conference at the Health Department in Hong Kong, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. Health authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan are reporting the first death from a new type of coronavirus. The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported Saturday that seven other people are in critical condition. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
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Health authorities in a central Chinese city on Saturday reported the country’s first death from a new type of coronavirus.

As the government braced for the Lunar New Year travel boom, fears rose of an outbreak similar to that of the SARS virus in the early 2000s.

Wuhan’s municipal health commission said seven people were in a critical condition among dozens suffering from pneumonia caused by a “preliminarily determined new type of coronavirus”.

Friday’s total of 41 cases is down from the earlier figure of 59.

Sufferers were said to be in a stable condition and at least two were discharged from hospital.

A 61-year-old man died on Thursday after being admitted to hospital with severe pneumonia and shortness of breath.

The commission said he also suffered from abdominal tumours and chronic liver disease.

He had been a frequent customer at a food market on Wuhan’s outskirts linked to the majority of cases.

China says the cause of the Wuhan outbreak remains unknown, but it has sought to quash speculation it could be a reappearance of the SARS epidemic, which killed hundreds in 2002 and 2003.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some of which cause the common cold.

Others, found in bats, camels and other animals, have evolved into more severe illnesses.

Common symptoms include a runny nose, headache, cough and fever.

Shortness of breath, chills and body aches are associated with more dangerous kinds of coronaviruses, states the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

China’s transport ministry says it plans additional measures to disinfect trains, planes and buses and prevent the spread of diseases during the 40-day travel rush for the Lunar New Year.

Also known as the Spring Festival, it will fall this year on January 25. The busy period began on Friday and runs until February 18.

“The emergence of the epidemic may cause panic among people, especially in areas where people are concentrated during the Spring Festival travel period,” the ministry’s chief engineer, Wang Yang, said.

Possible cases of the same illness have been reported in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan involving recent travellers to Wuhan.

Health authorities elsewhere in China have yet to announce similar cases, despite the high population density around Wuhan and its role as a travel hub for central China.

Yuen Kwok-yung, a disease expert at the University of Hong Kong, reportedly told the city’s official news agency that the new coronavirus shared 80 per cent of its genetic makeup with SARS strains found in bats, civet cats and humans.

Mr Yuen said it was unclear whether the virus could become more lethal, as the SARS virus had.

He said Hong Kong had a robust system for detecting more severe problems among patients.

“We have to take every measure and closely monitor the situation,” he told Radio Television Hong Kong.