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Fourth death from pneumonia outbreak reported as China confirms human-to-human transmission

20:00 | 21/01/2020

Wuhan health authorities on Tuesday (Jan 21) reported the fourth death in the coronavirus outbreak. Victim is a 89-year-old man.

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fourth death from pneumonia outbreak reported as china confirms human to human transmission
Passengers walk past a sign at Narita Airport in Chiba prefecture on Jan 16, 2020. Japan has confirmed a case of a mystery virus that first emerged in China and is from the same family as the deadly SARS pathogen. (STR/JIJI PRESS/AFP)

The victim is the latest casualty of a new Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-like virus that has spread across China and reached at least three other countries in Asia.

The man fell ill on Jan 13 and was admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties five days later, according to a statement by Wuhan authorities. He died the next day.

The statement said the patient also had underlying health diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease.

There are currently 169 people being treated in hospital in Wuhan, added the authorities.

In a separate statement posted on its official Weibo account, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said 15 medical workers in the city had been diagnosed with pneumonia with one other suspected case. Of the infected staff, one was in critical condition, it added.

News of the fourth death came after a Beijing government expert on Monday said that the virus is contagious between humans.

Scientists have scrambled to determine the mode of transmission, with a seafood market in Wuhan believed to be the centre of the outbreak.

But Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at the National Health Commission who helped expose the scale of the SARS outbreak, said patients could contract the new virus without having visited the city.

"Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission," he said in an interview with CCTV.

The authorities confirmed a total of 217 new cases of the virus in China as of 6pm local time on Monday, state television reported.

Of these, 198 were in Wuhan, the city where the disease was first discovered.

The disease has since spread beyond Wuhan to other Chinese cities, with Beijing and Shanghai confirming their first cases on Monday while more than a dozen others emerged in southern Guangdong province.

Fifteen medical workers helping with coronavirus patients in Wuhan have also been diagnosed with pneumonia, with one in critical condition, local authorities said.

Zhong predicted an increase of viral pneumonia cases during the Chinese New Year holiday - when millions travel in China - but expressed confidence in curbing the spread of the virus, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.

In Shanghai, officials on Tuesday confirmed a second case involving a 35-year-man who had visited Wuhan in early January, and said they were monitoring four other suspected cases.

It has also spread outside of China, with cases confirmed in Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

South Korea on Monday reported its first case - a 35-year-old woman who flew in from Wuhan. Thailand and Japan have previously confirmed a total of three cases - all of whom had visited the Chinese city.

The World Health Organization (WHO) panel will meet in Geneva on Wednesday to determine whether to declare the outbreak "a public health emergency of international concern" - a rare designation only used for the gravest epidemics.

WHO said earlier that an animal source seemed to be "the most likely primary source" with "some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts."

Weighing in on the matter for the first time, President Xi Jinping said on Monday that safeguarding people's lives should be given "top priority" and that the spread of the epidemic "should be resolutely contained", according to CCTV.

Xi said it was necessary to "release information on the epidemic in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation," and ensure people have a "stable and peaceful Spring Festival", the broadcaster said.

Scientists with the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London warned in a paper published on Friday that the number of cases in Wuhan was likely to be closer to 1,700, much higher than the official figure./.