Scientists say a virus related to mumps and measles could be behind the outbreak of a respiratory disease. Hong Kong is one of the worst-hit cities, and at least five people there have died from the disease.
Biologists in Germany, Hong Kong and Taiwan say they are on the verge of confirming that a virus causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Experts in Hong Kong say they think the agent is likely to be a known virus that has recently mutated to become more dangerous. Victims of the disease suffer severe flu-like symptoms and many develop what is called atypical pneumonia.
"Within one family you have a group of viruses from different species," said Yeoh Eng-Kiong, Hong Kong's health secretary. "Paramyxovirus is a family of viruses and there you have mumps virus and the measles virus. There is also a group of viruses that causes infection on children - it is thought it is a variant of that."
The breakthrough comes a day after the World Health Organization coordinated 11 laboratories to trace the cause of the outbreak. The disease has spread to three continents outside Asia and is thought to have claimed at least 12 lives.
Hong Kong is one of the worst hit cities and the number of cases is still climbing. The government reports 145 cases of atypical pneumonia, an increase of 34 from Tuesday. Dr. Yeoh said the disease has caused five deaths in Hong Kong.
Singapore also reported dramatic increases in cases. At least 30 people are displaying symptoms - up from the few cases reported previously.
The World Health Organization began a second phase of measures to help prevent the disease from spreading to poorer nations. Peter Cordingley is a WHO spokesman in Manila. "Now, we are moving onto what we call the vulnerable countries, where there is nothing been reported yet. We are sending out infection control equipment and lab equipment. These are the places that we think are pretty defenseless if anything happens, like Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji," Mr. Cordingley explained.
Vietnam reported a second death from the disease.
A French doctor in Hanoi died after treating pneumonia patients early in the outbreak. Australia has reported about 20 suspected cases of the illness.
Pneumonia patients in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Taiwan and Japan are being closely monitored.
The disease is thought to have first appeared in southern China a few months ago. About 300 people there developed it, and five died. But officials in China say the disease now is in under control.