France’s first victim of a new coronavirus, a 65-year-old man who had been travelling in Dubai, has died, while the second man who shared the same hospital room is stable, health officials said.
The man was hospitalised on April 23 following digestion problems after his return from Dubai and was diagnosed with the new coronavirus on May 8.
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The SARS-like virus had claimed two lives in Europe already: one in Britain and the other in Germany, bringing the total number killed to 23 people around the world so far, most of which were in Saudi Arabia.
The man who shared a hospital room with the French victim for three days, was later found to have the coronavirus, a cousin of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that sparked a health scare around the world in 2003.
In his 50s, the patient has been in hospital in the northern city of Lille since May 9.
Hospital authorities said in a statement on Tuesday that both men had been placed in isolated rooms and that “all human and material means had been deployed to treat” the dead man.
The second man “was in a serious but stable condition,” it said.
Both patients were given cardiac and respiratory support oxygen, which is administered to patients whose hearts and lungs are so severely diseased or damaged that they cease working, the statement added.
French Health Minister Marisol Touraine expressed sadness over the death, adding: “Authorities remain on alert but… there is no new situation in our country regarding the epidemic.”
Like SARS, the virus appears to cause an infection deep in the lungs, with patients suffering from a temperature, cough and breathing difficulties, but it differs from SARS in that it also causes rapid kidney failure.
The virus, which until now has been known as the novel coronavirus, or nCoV-EMC, was redubbed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS. There have been 44 confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organisation.
Saudi Arabia has had by far the most cases, with 30 confirmed infections and 18 fatalities, while cases have also been detected in Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Britain and France.
Scientists at the Erasmus medical centre in Rotterdam have pointed to bats as a natural source for the virus.
Bats were also pinpointed as a likely natural reservoir for SARS in a 2005 study, and are known carriers of the deadly hemorrhagic fever Ebola.
The WHO said on Friday that much uncertainty remained surrounding MERS, stressing that it aimed to work closely with Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and perhaps other Middle Eastern countries to determine how great the risk is.
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist from the University of Reading, sought to play down fears of infection.
“Apart from the unusual circumstances of very close containment with already hospitalised persons, it does not seem to transfer among people,” he said.
“As a result, the overall risk remains very low and the most pressing need is to identify where the virus is coming from so that these occasional infections can be prevented.”