France reports first case of deadly SARS-like virus

France's health ministry on Wednesday reported the country's first case of a new SARS-like virus that has so far killed 18 people, mostly in Saudi Arabia.

A 65-year-old man who came back to France from a holiday in Dubai was diagnosed with the deadly novel coronavirus, and is in intensive care in a hospital in the northern city of Douai, the ministry said.

"This is the first and only confirmed case in France to date," it added.

The unnamed patient, who was in Dubai from April 9 to 17, has been placed in isolation and is being given respiratory assistance and blood transfusions.

He is due to be transferred to a hospital in the bigger city of Lille, "as we have to put in place very specific measures to enable him to breathe," said Patrick Goldstein, in charge of emergency services in the region.

The virus, known as nCoV-EMC, is a cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which triggered a scare 10 years ago when it erupted in east Asia, leaping to humans from animal hosts and killing some 800 people.

It was first detected in September 2012 and since then more than 30 cases have been reported in different countries, with 18 deaths. But the French health ministry says it does not appear to be very contagious.

While it has been deadliest in Saudi Arabia, where 11 people have been killed by the virus, other cases have been reported in Jordan, Germany, Britain and now France.

According to the ministry, most of those affected had "spent time, before the symptoms appeared, in one of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula or in neighbouring countries."

Like SARS, the new virus appears to cause an infection deep in the lungs, with patients suffering from a temperature, cough and breathing difficulty, but it differs from SARS in that it also causes rapid kidney failure.

According to Goldstein, the lungs of the patient in France are no longer working properly, and cannot pump oxygen to his tissues or organs without respiratory assistance.

Authorities say the man went to the emergency room in a hospital in Valenciennes, another northern city, on the night of April 22-23 for a digestive disorder. At the time, he had no obvious respiratory problems.

But he deteriorated and was transferred to intensive care in Douai, where doctors found his respiratory system had been damaged. The nCoV-EMC diagnosis was only confirmed on Tuesday.

The World Health Organisation does not so far have enough information to determine how the new virus is transmitted or from where it originates, but it has called for international vigilance.

French authorities are looking for anyone who may have had contact with the patient, but so far, none of those close to him appear to have the virus.

Coronaviruses are a vast array of viruses that can cause all sorts of illnesses, from the common cold to SARS.