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French man with Middle East coronavirus MERS dies

PARISA French man infected with a deadly new SARS-like coronavirus linked to the Middle East, MERS, died Tuesday of the disease, according to health officials.

The disease has killed half the people known to be infected and alarmed global health officials.

The novel coronavirus is a respiratory disease related to SARS, which killed some 800 people in a global epidemic in 2003, mostly in Asia. Dr. Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, singled out the illness in a speech on Monday in Geneva.

"We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat," Chan said at the annual WHO meeting. "We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond."

The 65-year-old Frenchman, whose illness was identified May 8 after he returned from a visit to the United Arab Emirates, died Tuesday. His hospital roommate also tested positive for the illness.

WHO said in an earlier May 23 update that 22 of 44 confirmed cases of the disease have ended in death.

Cases have been confirmed in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). France, Germany, Tunisia and the U.K. also reported laboratory-confirmed cases, but they were either transferred for care or returned from Middle East and subsequently got sick. At this time, the WHO has not recommended travel or trade restrictions.

U.S. doctors have also been asked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep an eye out for the new virus in patients who had traveled to the Middle East.

French authorities started handing out leaflets at airports to travelers to the Middle East earlier this month, advising them to wash their hands frequently and reduce contact with animals, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The disease resembles a bat virus, but experts noted other animals like camels or goats may have a role in the diseases' spread.

Last Monday after the WHO's 66th World Health Assembly kicked off, Chan criticized scientific red tape from a dispute over which lab owns the virus as stalling investigation into the new disease.

"Please, I'm very strong on this point, and I want you to excuse me," she said last week. "Tell your scientists in your country, because you're the boss. You're the national authority. Why would your scientists send specimens out to other laboratories on a bilateral manner and allow other people to take intellectual property rights on a new disease?"