Saudi Arabia’s health ministry has said that five Saudis have died from a new SARS-like virus and that two more are being treated in an intensive care unit.
In a statement cited by the Saudi SPA agency late on Wednesday, the ministry said that all the deaths occurred in the Ahsaa province in the oil-rich eastern region of the kingdom, according to the AFP news agency.
Known as novel coronavirus or hCoV-EMC, the virus was first detected in mid-2012 and is a cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which triggered a scare 10 years ago when it erupted in east Asia, leaping to humans from animal hosts.
The health ministry said it was taking “all precautionary measures for persons who have been in contact with the infected people … and has taken samples from them to examine if they are infected”.
However, the ministry gave no figures for how many people have been examined to see if they have the lethal disease.
Sixteen people have now died from 23 cases detected in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Germany and Britain. Riyadh has accounted for most of the deaths, with 11 people, including the five new fatalities.
Coronaviruses cause most common colds and pneumonia, but are also to blame for unusual conditions such as SARS which killed more than 800 people when it swept out of China in 2003.
The new virus is different from SARS, in that it causes rapid kidney failure.
The strain is shrouded in mystery, and the World Health Organisation does not yet know how it is transmitted or how widespread it is.
A 73-year-old Saudi man died in Germany in March from the lethal new virus.
He had been travelling in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia before falling ill, and was transferred to Munich from Abu Dhabi on March 19.