Five people have died and another two are intensive care in Saudi Arabia's Alhasaa province after falling ill with a new virus related to one that caused the Sars epidemic in Asia in 2003, the Saudi Press Agency said.
But yesterday the country's deputy minister for public health said that all the cases were from a single hospital over the last few days and he had no reason to believe a larger number of people were exposed.
"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 A Memish told The National.
The first case of the novel coronavirus (NCoV) in Saudi Arabia was discovered in June last year. Sixteen people have now died from the disease out of a total of 23 cases detected in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Germany, Britain and the UAE. Eleven of the fatalities have been in the kingdom.
One of the most recent victims was a 73-year old Emirati who died on March 19 after being transferred from Abu Dhabi to a hospital in Munich.
Scientists are currently uncertain about how the virus is spread, though they believe human-to-human transmission is possible.
In March, a study published in Nature magazine suggested that the virus may infect the body through a docking point in lung cells. The researchers also suggested that bats may be the reservoir for the disease.
Unlike the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) virus, the new strain of the disease can cause rapid kidney failure.
Dr Memish said that Saudi Arabia's medical system had undertaken surveillance measures since the first report of the virus last summer.
"We are asking hospitals to test all individuals" who present symptoms consistent with the virus, he said.
"We are recommending precautionary measures such as covering one's mouth and nose when sneezing, maintaining good hygiene. Hopefully this will prevent the spread until we have more information."
The World Health Organisation confirmed that it had been notified of the five most recent fatalities. But spokesman Glenn Thomas said it was "unlikely" that the organisation would issue a travel warning for the kingdom since "there has been no change in the risk assessment".
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse