By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican said on Friday that a patient in its health services had tested positive for coronavirus, the first in the tiny, walled city-state surrounded by Rome.

A Vatican source said the patient had participated in an international conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Life last week in a packed theatre several blocks from the Vatican.

Participants at the three-day conference on Artificial Intelligence included top executives of U.S. tech giants Microsoft and IBM.

The academy issued a separate statement saying it was informing all other participants of the development by email but did not say it was the same person whose case was announced earlier by Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.

The discovery worsened the prospects of the virus having already spread further in the capital of Italy, since most Vatican employees live in Rome and those who live in the Vatican frequently enter and leave the city state.

The death toll in Italy, the worst-hit European country, stood at 197 on Friday. The north of the country has been the most heavily hit.

Bruni said the case was diagnosed on Thursday and that services in its clinics had been suspended to sanitize the areas.

Most Vatican employees who use its health services live in Italy on the other side of the border with the 108-acre city state.

Bruni gave no details on whether the person who tested positive was such an employee or among the relatively few clergy or guards who live inside its walls.

Italian health authorities said that, as of Friday, 49 people had tested positive for coronavirus in Rome province.

Pope Francis cancelled a Lent retreat for the first time in his papacy, but the Vatican has said he is suffering only from a cold that is “without symptoms related to other pathologies”.

The Vatican has also said it is studying measures to modify the pope’s activities to avoid the spread of coronavirus in coordination with measures by the Italian government, which include encouraging people not to gather in large numbers.

Tens of thousands of people flock to St. Peter’s Square every Sunday to listen to the pope give his weekly blessing and message from a window of the Vatican Apostolic Palace overlooking the square.

Thousands of others attend his weekly general audience, which is held either outdoors in the square or in a large audience hall inside the Vatican, depending on the weather.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Writing by Giselda Vagnoni; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Nick Macfie)