New SARS-Like Virus Not Spreading Among People

By Amir Khan on September 30, 2012 8:11 AM EDT

SARS
During the SARS epidemic, people frequently wore masks to prevent infection (Photo: Creative Commons)

The new SARS-like virus spreading in the Middle East is not spreading from person to person, according to the World Health Organization.

The latest case of the new SARS-like virus occurred in a man who recently travelled to Saudi Arabia. He was transferred from Qatar to London for treatment, where is he listed in critical condition with kidney failure.

The virus comes from a family of coronaviruses, which are responsible for a wide variety of illnesses, including the common cold and SARS, a respiratory infection that killed 800 people in Asia during a 2003 epidemic.

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"From the information available thus far, it appears that the novel coronavirus cannot be easily transmitted from person to person," the WHO said in a statement.

The WHO put out an alert on Sunday, warning anyone who visited the Middle East to be on the lookout for flu-like symptoms.

"Given the severity of the two laboratory confirmed cases, WHO is continuing to monitor the situation in order to provide the appropriate response, expertise and support to its member states," the WHO said.

Researchers said it's likely that the virus originated in an animal and is spread via that means as well.

"(It) is quite probably of zoonotic origin and different in behaviour from SARS," scientists at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control wrote in a study, published in the journal Eurosurveillance.

WHO spokesman Glenn Thomas said the organization will continue to investigate the disease, but said it's not likely to turn into the epidemic SARS did.

"But from the evidence we have, and given that there are only two cases confirmed so far and there was a distance and time distance between the two cases, (the) assumption is that it isn't easily transferable person to person," he said, according to Reuters.

Thomas also said that researchers are making progress in identifying the genetic makeup of the new virus.

"We are developing with our partners sensitive and specific diagnostic assays and these should be available in the next few days," Thomas said. "If any national authority is concerned about a patient who is under investigation, if they want to contact us, we can put them in touch with these laboratories and provide initial tests for any cases which are suspicious."

Experts initially were worried that the new virus could be as deadly as SARS was in 2003, when it killed 800 in Asia during the epidemic.

SARS affected more than 30 countries during the epidemic's peak, and Michael Osterholm, a flu expert at the University of Minnesota said the fact that one person has already died is worrisome.

"You don't die from the common cold," he said. "This gives us reason to think it might be more like SARS."

SARS killed 10 percent of people it infected, but Osterholm said it's unclear how deadly the new SARS-like virus is.

"We don't know if this is going to turn into another SARS or if it will disappear into nothing," he said.

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