Japanese health officials have confirmed a pneumonia case caused by a previously unknown virus that started an outbreak in China, becoming the third country to identify the virus and raising additional questions about how it is spread.
The patient in Japan, a man in his 30s, had traveled there from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak originated, Japanese health authorities said in a statement. But he told health officials that he had not been to the large seafood market linked to most of the cases. That means there could be another source of the virus — which has been determined to be a coronavirus, a group that can sometimes jump from animals to people — or the man contracted the virus from another person.
Also Thursday, Wuhan health authorities reported a second death tied to the pneumonia. They identified the patient as Xiong Moumou, 69, who became ill on Dec. 31. He developed inflammation in his heart and abnormal function in his organs, and died Wednesday.
So far, health authorities have not concluded that the virus can be spread among people, but they have been racing to learn more since the pneumonia cases started appearing in Wuhan, a city 700 miles south of Beijing, last month. They say, however, that if human transmission is possible, it appears to be rare.
In Wuhan, where 41 cases have been confirmed, health authorities have been tracking 763 close contacts of the patients, including more than 400 health workers, and have not identified any related cases of the infection.
“According to the latest information we have, there is no clear evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission and there are no infections reported among health care workers,” the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific branch said in a series of tweets. “The fact that some cases do not seem to be linked with the Huanan seafood market means we cannot exclude the possibility of limited human-to-human transmission.”
“We are still in the early stages of understanding this new virus, where it came from, and how it affects people,” the WHO added.
The patient in Japan developed a fever Jan. 3 and traveled from Wuhan to Japan on Jan. 6, according to Japanese health officials. That day, he sought medical care, and was hospitalized Jan. 10 in Kanagawa prefecture. He was treated and released Wednesday.
He was confirmed to have the novel coronavirus — a group that also includes SARS and MERS — testing that was enabled by the sharing of the genetic sequence of the virus by Chinese scientists.
The case was not the first one that did not appear directly tied to the seafood market that health officials identified early on as the possible source of the viral spread. The market, which has been closed since Jan. 1, also sold the meat of exotic animals. Coronaviruses originate in bats but can infect a number of animals, and from there jump to humans.
A tourist from Wuhan was confirmed to have the virus while traveling in Thailand, health officials said earlier this week. The patient, a 61-year-old woman, visited markets in Wuhan regularly, but did not report visiting the Huanan seafood market, the WHO said.
“This is in line with reporting from China, where they indicated that most — but not all — of the cases were vendors, operators, or visitor to the Huanan market,” a WHO spokesman said this week about the case in Thailand.
In Wuhan, local health authorities confirmed this week that a husband and wife both had the virus. The husband was an employee of the market, while the wife said she had not been there recently.
Health officials have been on alert since the pneumonia cases appeared starting Dec. 12 because they reminded people of the early days of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which went on to spread from China to Hong Kong and then to Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, and Toronto, killing nearly 800 people.
The first patient to die from the novel coronavirus was a 61-year-old man in Wuhan with other health problems.
This story has been updated with information about the second death from the outbreak.