World Health Organisation (WHO) officials said on Sunday it seemed likely a new coronavirus that has killed at least 18 people in the Middle East and Europe could be passed between humans, but only after prolonged contact.
A virus from the same family triggered the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that swept the world after emerging in Asia and killed 775 people in 2003.
On Sunday French authorities announced that a second man had been diagnosed with the disease after sharing a hospital room with France’s only other sufferer.
WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda told reporters in Saudi Arabia, the site of the largest cluster of infections, there was no evidence so far the virus was able to sustain “generalised transmission in communities” – a scenario that would raise the spectre of a pandemic.
But he added: “Of most concern … is the fact that the different clusters seen in multiple countries … increasingly support the hypothesis that when there is close contact, this novel coronavirus can transmit from person to person.
“There is a need for countries to … increase levels of awareness,” he said.
A public health expert who declined to be identified, said “close contact” meant being in the same small, enclosed space with an infected person for a prolonged period.