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Killer pneumonia virus' origin in China

Tan Ee Lyn (Reuters)

Hong Kong, March 20: Mainland China emerged more clearly on Thursday as the source of a dangerous viral pneumonia that has killed at least 15 people around the world.

Hong Kong Health Minister Yeoh Eng-kiong said that another person had died, bringing the death toll in Hong Kong to six. There are now 173 people sick in from the virus in Hong Kong, 165 of them in critical condition.

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The latest victim was a relative of an infected doctor from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, where a recent outbreak of pneumonia infected at least 305, and killed five.

Officials believe the Chinese doctor passed the virus to seven strangers staying on the same floor of a hotel in Hong Kong before he died. They then infected staff in hospitals in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vietnam.

"Eighty percent of the infections in Hong Kong can be traced to that one person," Yeoh said, referring to the Chinese doctor.

Frightened guests were seen checking out of the Metropole hotel, where the doctor stayed in the downtown Kowloon district, early on Thursday.

Yeoh was among the first people to officially link the Hong Kong disease to the pneumonia outbreak in southern China. China has denied any direct connection between the outbreaks.

The disease has made several hundred people seriously ill across the world. Air travellers from Asia have turned up sick in places as far away as the United States, Germany, Japan, and Canada, where two people died.

Vietnam said on Thursday the virus was under control there and it would not block travellers from places such as Hong Kong. But most airports and airlines are screening passengers and turning away people showing the flu-like symptoms of the virus.

China has also said its outbreak was under control but the virus appeared to have emerged in Beijing, where there are at least two possible cases.


Teams in Hong Kong and Germany had found in patients a common virus known as paramyxovirus, which is similar to the one that causes measles.

But medical experts have not ruled out a new, or mutant strain. Global efforts are focused on finding an effective treatment and vaccine.

At least 20 cases of infection apparently have no connection with the Chinese doctor, sparking fear the virus is spreading in the community. Yeoh said it does not indicate a rapid spread.

Six of those infected are young children related to infected hospital staff. Yeoh said authorities have not found any cases in schools.

The Metropole hotel was taking precautions, but no one yet knows what is really effective against the virus.

"Today we will clean and disinfect that floor. We will also disinfect the lifts," said Kaivan Ng, a manager at the hotel.

In Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong, surgical masks to protect against airborne germs have become hot items, with drugstores enjoying brisk sales.



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