Saudi authorities announced yesterday that two more patients who contracted the new coronavirus had died, raising to 15 the number of Saudis who have succumbed from respiratory failure.
The announcement of more fatalities in the kingdom came as visiting World Health Organization (WHO) official said there is a possibility that the disease can spread through human contact.
"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," the assistant director-general of WHO, Keiji Fukuda, told reporters in Riyadh yesterday.
Saudi Arabia's health ministry was more cautious, saying only that there were "indications" that the virus had been transmitted during "close contact."
"The means of transition and source of the virus is unknown up to this time," the ministry said in a statement.
Also yesterday, French authorities confirmed a second case of the new virus in a 50-year old man who shared a hospital ward with a patient thought to have contracted the coronavirus during a visit to Dubai. Officials in France had reported four new suspected cases over the weekend, but only one tested positive for the disease.
The new coronavirus, first discovered in September 2012 in Saudi Arabia, is related to the Sars virus that killed nearly 800 people in 2003. Although the coronavirus appears to spread more slowly, it has a higher mortality rate than Sars.
A high temperature and coughing are the initial symptoms of infection, followed by severe pneumonia.
Cases of infection by the new coronavirus have been detected in seven countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, as well as the UK, France and Jordan. Possible human-to-human transmission, which would increase the chances of a wider spread of the virus, has been detected in four of these countries.
Of the 34 confirmed cases of infection by the new coronavirus, 24 have been diagnosed in Saudi Arabia. And the largest concentration of confirmed infections in Saudi Arabia has been in the kingdom's eastern Alhasa province. Saudi's deputy health minister Ziad Memish said that the latest deaths occurred in Alhasa where 15 people have contracted the virus, nine of whom have died.
Investigators with the WHO, New York's Columbia University, and other organisations and institutions in Canada and the US have visited Saudi Arabia in recent days. More were expected to arrive, the health ministry said.
* With additional reporting from Reuters