The first case of a potentially lethal virus caught in Britain was announced last night as health officials tried to trace anyone who had been in contact with an infected Hong Kong businessman.

The first case of a potentially lethal virus caught in Britain was announced last night as health officials tried to trace anyone who had been in contact with an infected Hong Kong businessman.

The British patient is thought to have been infected with Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) during a two-hour business meeting in London. He is being treated in isolation at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, north-west London.

Health officials revealed that a 48-year-old Hong Kong businessman who had attended the meeting was already showing symptoms of the highly contagious infection when he arrived in London on 2 April. He stayed in the country for more than 24 hours before returning to Hong Kong, where he was admitted to hospital.

"We are trying to trace people he might have been in contact with him while he was in the UK," said a spokeswoman for the Health Protection Agency. "They will be monitored in case they develop any symptoms of Sars."

The Hong Kong Health Department appealed for passengers and air crews from seven Lufthansa flights used by the businessman to contact doctors. The man left Hong Kong for Munich on 30 March and then flew on to Barcelona, where he developed symptoms of the infection. But he decided to continue his trip, flying to Frankfurt before arriving in London on flight 4520. He left London on flight 4671 to Munich and then went back to Frankfurt before returning to Hong Kong on 5 April.

The case is likely to lead to calls for the introduction of stricter monitoring of passengers from those countries in the Far East where the virus is known to be a severe risk. Five previous cases of Sars in the UK are believed to have been caught abroad.

Yesterday a 47-year-old British businessman was identified as the first probable case of Sars in Indonesia after travelling to the country from Hong Kong and Singapore. The Philippines also reported its first cases yesterday.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that Sars could threaten a global catastrophe. Twenty countries have now been affected.

Delivering an update on the new disease one month after it issued a global health alert about Sars, the WHO said it remained a particularly serious threat to international health because of the ease with which it had been spread by air travel and because of the way it was concentrated among health workers, disabling hospitals and health systems.

"If the Sars virus maintains its present pathogenicity and transmissibility, Sars could become the first severe new disease of the 21st century with global epidemic potential," said David Heymann, executive director of communicable diseases at the WHO.

Mr Heymann said the "hot zones" of concern remained China, Canada, Hong Kong, Hanoi and Singapore. "One of the most alarming features of Sars in these areas is its rapid spread in hospitals where it has affected a large number of previously healthy healthcare workers," he said.

In contrast to new diseases that have emerged in recent years ­ such as avian flu, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Ebola and Marburg disease ­ Sars was more infectious, spread more widely and caused serious illness with "alarming" numbers of victims requiring intensive care.

Worldwide, Sars has claimed at least 116 lives and infected almost 3,000 people.

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