Authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan have announced the death of a 69-year-old man from a coronavirus that causes pneumonia, bringing the total number of fatalities to two after 41 cases were confirmed in the city.
The Wuhan municipal health commission said in a statement issued late on Thursday that the man, identified only by his surname Xiong, had died in the early hours of Jan. 15 in Wuhan's Jinyintan Hospital after being admitted with severe myocarditis, abnormal renal function and multiple organ failure.
The latest fatality came after Japan confirmed it had one patient infected with what the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling the novel coronavirus (nCoV) China, which the U.N. agency says is from the same family as the deadly SARS pathogen that killed hundreds of people in 2002-2003.
Japan's health ministry said the man was hospitalized on Jan. 10, four days after his return to Japan from China, having reported traveling to Wuhan.
Tests on the patient, who was discharged from hospital on Wednesday, confirmed he was infected with the new virus.
"This is the first domestic discovery of a pneumonia case related to the new coronavirus," the ministry said in a statement.
Multiple cases of nCoV have also been reported in Hong Kong and one in Thailand.
While the virus was initially traced to a now-shuttered wholesale seafood market in Wuhan, there are concerns that it may be jumping from person to person, possibly within families.
The WHO is warning hospitals to prepare for the possibility of limited human-to-human transmission of nCoV.
"Some coronaviruses can be transmitted from person to person, usually after close contact with an infected patient, for example, in a household workplace, or health care center," the U.N. health agency said in an FAQ on its website.
The WHO is also warning hospitals to apply standard precautions to prevent person-to-person transmission "at all times."
Maria Van Kerkhove, acting head of WHO's emerging diseases unit, told a news conference in Geneva on Jan. 14 that human-to-human transmission can't be ruled out.
"From the information that we have it is possible that there is limited human-to-human transmission, potentially among families, but it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human to-human transmission," Van Kerkhove said.
She said the WHO is preparing for a wider outbreak, although that is by no means certain.
"It is still early days, we don't have a clear clinical picture," she said.
Japan's health ministry official Eiji Hinoshita said thorough checks had been carried out on those who had been in close contact with the patient.
"At this point, we feel it is unlikely this will lead to a dramatic outbreak," he said, adding that the patient was no longer suffering a fever and was recuperating at home.
According to local media reports, the patient is a Chinese national in his 30s living in Kanagawa, just southwest of Tokyo.
Meanwhile, authorities in Hong Kong updated their advice to medics to report cases involving people with severe respiratory symptoms and fever who had traveled to Wuhan or had close contact with a confirmed nCoV case, or visited any hospital in mainland China.
A one-year-old baby girl and a 34-year-old woman were recently hospitalized in Hong Kong after traveling to Wuhan and presenting with fever and respiratory symptoms, but were later found to have contracted a seasonal flu virus, the Hospital Authority said in a statement.
The Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection has reported a total of 78 suspected cases of Wuhan pneumonia, with six patients remaining in isolation wards in Hong Kong hospitals.
"There have been no confirmed cases of new coronavirus infections in public hospitals," the statement said.
It said passengers arriving from Wuhan would continue to be checked for elevated body temperatures at ports, airports and railway terminals, and high-speed trains and aircraft would be subjected to additional cleaning and disinfection.
The democratic island of Taiwan has yet to report any cases of nCoV, but has sent a team of health experts to Wuhan to monitor the situation.
Health expert Hung Min-nan said concerns that human-to-human transmission is already taking place are legitimate.
"It may be difficult to rule out the possibility of human-to-human transmission within families," Hung said. "We always had our suspicions, but we are much more confident now that human-to human transmission is occurring."
He said 13 confirmed cases had no link to the seafood market that China said was the source of the virus.
"Some of the sources of infection are unknown," Hung said.
Hwang Li-min, director of the Children's Infectious Diseases Department at National Taiwan University Hospital, said there are fears that the virus could spread as hundreds of millions of people take to trains, planes and automobiles to travel home for Lunar New Year on Jan. 24.
"Wuhan is a very large city, and it's unclear whether every hospital in Wuhan has started looking into this," Hwang said. "Wuhan is a super metropolis with very dense connections with other major cities, and we don't yet know if anyone [infected with the virus] has already traveled to other cities."
"We are now watching what China does very carefully, and we are making our own preparations," he said.
Reported by Hwang Chun-mei and Jia Ao for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.