New SARS-Like Virus Detected: Should We Be Worried?

  • Share
  • Read Later
EIGHTFISH / Getty Images

Health officials have identified a new coronavirus, in the same family of viruses that cause the common cold and that triggered the SARS epidemic that killed hundreds around the world in 2003.

The novel virus was discovered in a 49-year-old Qatari man who is now being treated for kidney failure in isolation at an intensive-care unit in London. The patient’s virus is nearly identical to one isolated by Dutch researchers earlier this year from a Saudi Arabian patient who died from his infection, leading scientists to believe the new pathogen could be circulating in the Middle East. The Qatari man had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement on Sunday about the novel virus. Given that health officials’ knowledge about the new virus is limited and that there is yet no evidence of human-to-human transmission, the WHO is not recommending any travel restrictions.

“We don’t know if this is going to turn into another SARS or if it will disappear into nothing,” Michael Osterholm, a flu expert at the University of Minnesota, told the Associated Press, noting, however, that it was concerning that at least one person appeared to have died from the disease. “You don’t die from the common cold,” he said. “This gives us reason to think it might be more like SARS.”

(MORE: The Truth About SARS)

SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, first jumped into humans from civet cats in China and ended up spreading to Hong Kong and then to more than 30 countries worldwide, killing about 800 people. After the first infected patient was identified in China, the cases began piling up quickly, as the virus spread via air droplets expelled when infected people sneezed or coughed. Air travelers, unaware at first that they were infected, ferried the virus to nearly every continent, leading to outbreaks in Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America and Africa. The virus led to respiratory failure and killed up to 12% of those it infected.

In the 2003 epidemic, SARS patients progressed from cough and fever to muscle aches and chills. Typical symptoms of coronavirus infection include fever, cough and difficulty in breathing.

Based on the 2003 experience, doctors have learned that treating infected patients quickly with antibiotics and providing respiratory support can help in controlling a coronavirus infection. But because the new virus was identified only recently — the Qatari man first showed signs of illness on Sept. 3 — health officials still can’t fully predict how bad symptoms of the new disease will be, or why some people may become severely ill and even die, while others recover.

(MORE: Urban Ebola? Why the Latest Outbreak in Uganda Raises Worries)

It’s likely that the new virus may also spread through infected persons’ coughs and sneezes, but experts believe it is not very contagious, according to the BBC:

If it were, we would have seen more cases in other countries or the people caring for these two cases, the first of which occurred more than three months ago.

Coronaviruses are fairly fragile. Outside of the body they can only survive for a day and are easily destroyed by usual detergents and cleaning agents.

So far, British health officials studying the new coronavirus say it is being controlled. “For now, I would be watchful but not immediately concerned,” Peter Openshaw, director of the Centre for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London, told Reuters.

The fact that the virus was detected at all and quickly connected to a previous case is a reflection of how sophisticated gene-sequencing techniques have become. Scientists can now rapidly and accurately decode the genetic blueprint of novel microbes. But while such analyses can help detect and eventually treat potentially threatening new infections more effectively, they may also turn up disturbing cases of never-before-seen microbes that end up being harmless, or worse, untreatable with current antimicrobial medications.

“It’s still [in the] very early days,” Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesperson, told the Associated Press. “At the moment, we have two sporadic cases, and there are still a lot of holes to be filled in.”

Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.