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First death from Wuhan pneumonia outbreak reported as scientists release DNA sequence of virus


Wong Ka-hing, controller of the Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health, holds a Wuhan Municipal Health Commission press statement of a new type of coronavirus. Andy Wong/Associated Press

Health authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan on Saturday reported the first death from a mysterious spate of pneumonia cases that they have identified as likely caused by a previously unknown virus.

Separately, scientists released the genetic sequence of the virus — a step hailed by experts and global health leaders as vital for learning more about the virus and for distinguishing cases of pneumonia it is causing as opposed to other viruses.

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To everyone in #Wuhan, in China & beyond who have worked so hard over the last few weeks in difficult circumstances & in particular over last 12-24 hours to facilitate this – on behalf of everyone – thank you.

— Jeremy Farrar (@JeremyFarrar) January 11, 2020
The fatal case involved a 61-year-old man who died on Thursday after he had been admitted to the hospital with respiratory failure and severe pneumonia, according to Wuhan health authorities. He apparently had other health issues, with the statement from the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee noting he had abdominal tumors and chronic liver disease.

Overall, authorities have identified 41 cases of pneumonia tied to the viral infection, they said in another statement. Two patients have been discharged from hospitals, seven people still have severe cases, and the rest are in stable condition, the statement said.

The main symptom has been fever, according to the World Health Organization, with some patients having trouble breathing.

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The unexplained pneumonia cases started popping up in Wuhan — a city 700 miles south of Beijing — on Dec. 12. They reminded some experts of the emergence of SARS in 2003, when the virus spread from China to Hong Kong and then on to Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, and Toronto, Canada, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing nearly 800.

In their statements released Saturday, Wuhan authorities said they have not seen any new infections since Jan. 3.

Earlier this week, Chinese scientists reported they had recovered the virus from an infected person and generated its genetic sequence. They identified it as a coronavirus, a group that also includes SARS and MERS. At the time, experts said that more research was needed to confirm that the novel virus was the cause of the outbreak of the pneumonia cases, but the Saturday statement from the Wuhan health authorities said all 41 people had been infected with the virus.

Coronaviruses, which originate in bats but can infect a number of animals, are famed for being able to jump from animals to people.

The Wuhan outbreak has been tied to a large seafood market that also sells the meat of exotic animals. The market was closed Jan. 1.

The health authorities reiterated Saturday they had not seen any definite evidence of people passing on the virus to other people — meaning that every human case would have come from being exposed to the virus from an animal. But outside experts have noted that it can be difficult to exclude that at this early point in the outbreak. The WHO has said that “from the currently available information, preliminary investigation suggests that there is no significant human-to-human transmission.”

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The health authorities said they have been monitoring 739 contacts of people who became sick, including 419 health workers, but none of them appear to have contracted the virus.

Meanwhile, health experts were praising the speed and transparency of the release of the genome sequence of the virus. Having that information available, they said, will allow them to learn more about the virus and come up with specific diagnostic tools.

As a result of Wuhan, China & beyond sharing the sequence data, the advice China CDC & @WHO can offer is hugely enhanced, diagnostic tests can be improved, serological assays developed & the data used to support evidenced based policy-a great day for global public health

— Jeremy Farrar (@JeremyFarrar) January 11, 2020
Such tools are urgently needed during outbreaks. Hong Kong and countries in Southeast Asia, for example, have been isolating people who develop respiratory infections and who have traveled to Wuhan until they can be tested for influenza, rhinoviruses, and other viruses that cause colds and flu — a major investment of resources, particularly during flu season.

“Please feel free to download, share, use, and analyze this data,” wrote Yong-Zhen Zhang of Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center and School of Public Health on the page with the sequence. The sequence was released by a group of experts from Chinese and Australian institutions.

Also on Friday, the WHO issued advice for international travelers to Wuhan — essentially, avoid contact with animals and sick people and wash your hands often — and guidance for labs testing patient samples for the virus.

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