Three people have died and five are in hospital after developing a “pneumonia of unknown origin”, Argentinian health authorities have announced.
According to the Ministry of Health in Tucumán – a small region in the northwest of the country some 800 miles from the capital, Buenos Aires – nine people in the same private clinic unit have contracted mystery pneumonia.
Authorities are concerned about the deadly outbreak because the usual suspects – including Covid, influenza and hantavirus – have been ruled out. Five of the six affected, and both of those who so far died, are also health care workers, suggesting an infectious agent may be involved.
“What these patients have in common is the severe respiratory condition with bilateral pneumonia and compromised in [x-ray] images very similar to Covid, but that is ruled out,” Luis Medina Ruiz, Tucumán’s minister of health, said on Wednesday, according to local media.
He added that the six patients have had a series of tests for “Covid, cold, influenza of both types A+ and B+, Hantavirus and 25 other germs” but no virus has yet been identified.
Samples have been sent to the prestigious Malbran Institute in Buenos Aires for further analysis. Contacts of the first patients are being tracked and the healthcare center has been isolated.
The first six patients developed symptoms between August 18 and 22. On Thursday, health authorities said a further three people had been infected, but did not say when their symptoms developed.
‘This shows our vulnerability to pathogens’
Experts are also analyzing the water, and air conditioning units to determine whether the cause is toxic or environmental – for instance, whether legionella bacteria may have accumulated in the air conditioning duct.
Although the cases are reminiscent of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when authorities were racing to determine the cause of an unexplained pneumonia in Wuhan, health experts cautioned that more information is needed “before ringing the alarm bell”.
The European Center for Disease Control’s epidemic intelligence team has been tracking the cluster of cases since Tuesday. The World Health Organization is also aware of the cases.
“It’s obviously concerning but we still need key information on transmission and hopefully [on the] underlying cause,” said Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of global health at Edinburgh University and author of ‘Preventable’.
“This shows our collective vulnerability to dangerous pathogens. An outbreak in any part of the world – if not quickly contained – can spread rapidly given air travel and trade.”