5 coronavirus deaths revealed in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia revealed today that it has recorded seven new cases of the mysterious infection recently, and five of the people are already dead.

Total case count for the new disease rises to 24 cases, with 16 deaths

The World Health Organization would like more and quicker information about new coronaviruses cases, the organization's head of infectious diseases said Thursday after Saudi Arabia surprised the world with the news it had found seven more coronavirus infections.

The Saudi ministry of health revealed late Wednesday that it had diagnosed the new cases, which bring the global case count to 24 infections. Five of the new seven cases had died by the time the Saudi government told the World Health Organization that additional cases had been found.

Electron micrograph image released by the British Health Protection Agency shows a coronavirus, which was first identified last year in the Middle East. (Health Protection Agency/Associated Press)

Infections with the new virus have popped up in several Middle Eastern countries and in Britain, though that cluster of three cases appears to have been set off when a man who lives in Britain became ill while travelling in Saudi Arabia. The man, who later died, infected his son and another member of his extended family.

Though the majority of the total cases — 16 of which have been fatal — have come from Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government has been very closed-mouthed about the outbreak.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director general for health security and the environment, said the WHO was informed of the cases late Wednesday, but has been given little information about them. It has asked for more, Fukuda said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"As a matter of course we would prefer to hear and know about things as early as possible. The whole aim of detecting [diseases] is really to try to move and protect as quickly as possible," Fukuda said from Geneva.

"I won't speak for the government of Saudi Arabia, but I can speak for WHO in saying that it's a point that we have made and it's a position that we hold very clearly with everybody."

Case information sparse

Among the information the WHO would like to know is whether the new cases are linked in any way. That information that is needed to assess whether the infections were sporadic jumps of the virus from its reservoir in nature or whether the virus passed person to person in some or all of these cases.

"Actually we don't have much epidemiological information or supporting information about these cases right now. This is again some of the things that we would very much like to know," Fukuda said.

Disease experts have been anxiously watching this new coronavirus to see if it will acquire the ability to spread from human to human, so knowing if cases are sporadic or linked is critical.

A Saudi newspaper, The National, quoted the country's deputy minister of health saying the cases all occurred or were being treated in the same hospital, in the eastern region of Alhasaa.

"All the cases that have been reported were in the same hospital in Alhasaa. We have not found any cases anywhere else in the eastern region," Dr. Ziad Memish told the paper.

The new virus, which the WHO calls NCoV for short and which is identified as hCoV-EMC in the scientific literature, is a member of the same virus family as the pathogen that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak.

To date, most cases spotted have been severely ill, their lungs ravaged by the new virus. While the majority of infected people have died, a few have recovered and left hospital, and a few more remain in hospital on breathing machines months after they were infected.

The first known cases occurred in April 2012, in a cluster of 11 illnesses in a hospital in Jordan. Samples from two of those cases were tested after the fact and found to be positive for the new virus.

The coronavirus was first spotted when a Saudi man died of a mysterious and severe pneumonia last June. When the cause of his illness could not be detected, an infectious disease specialist sent a sample to Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where virologists determined a new coronavirus was behind the infection.

Since then 21 additional cases have been discovered in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Britain, but the world appears to be no closer to knowing what the source of the infection is or how people are getting infected.