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China reports first death from mystery pneumonia outbreak

A 61-year-old man has become the first person to die in China from a respiratory illness believed caused by a new virus from the same family as SARS, which claimed hundreds of lives more than a decade ago, authorities said.

Forty-one people with pneumonia-like symptoms have so far been diagnosed with the new virus in Wuhan, with one of the victims dying on Thursday, the central Chinese city’s health commission said on its website on Saturday.

Seven others remained in serious condition, two were discharged from treatment, and the rest were stable, it added.

The episode has caused alarm due to the spectre of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which in 2002-2003 killed 349 people in mainland China and another 299 in Hong Kong, whose economy was hit hard by the epidemic’s devastating impact on tourism.

The Wuhan health commission said the man who died had purchased goods from a seafood market in the city identified by authorities as the centre of the outbreak.

The man, who also had underlying health issues including chronic liver disease, died in hospital on Thursday of “respiratory failure and severe pneumonia”, the commission added.

No new cases have been detected since January 3 nor any “clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”, it said.

Chinese scientists investigating the outbreak said last week they believe the pathogen is a previously unknown type of coronavirus, a broad family ranging from the common cold to more serious illnesses like SARS.

Scientists in Hong Kong’s Department of Health said Saturday that genetic sequencing of the virus found in one of the Wuhan patients and published online by a Chinese expert indicated it was 80 percent similar to SARS found in bats.

Speaking at a news conference in Hong Kong, they said it was too early to conclude definitively that it was a SARS strain, adding that the city needed to stay vigilant.

“We will remain alert as we believe the epidemic will continue to develop,” said Wong Ka-hing, director of the department’s Health Protection Centre.
Hong Kong authorities have taken a range of precautions including stepping up the disinfection of trains and planes, and checks of passengers.