An interim sigh of relief was felt around the world Sept. 28 when the World Health Organization announced its belief the newly discovered coronavirus—similar to SARS—is not easily transmitted among humans. The virus, which previously killed a Saudi Arabian man, infected a Qatari man, who is now in critical but stable condition in a U.K. hospital, in September.
Health officials are still warned to be cautious and vigilant in identifying acute respiratory symptoms that require patients to be hospitalized, especially those who are in or have traveled to the Middle East, where the virus is thought to have originated. WHO is quickly working to create a diagnostic test, but urges health professionals to only test patients for the virus if respiratory symptoms are acute, so health care systems are not overburdened with erroneous exams.
Many types of viruses exist in the coronavirus family, include the newly-discovered yet-unnamed virus, SARS and the common cold. They generally cause respiratory infections in humans as well as other animal species. The new virus—like SARS—causes fever, cough and breathing problems. The two victims have also presented with kidney failure.
Unlike the SARS outbreak of 2003, the new virus does not appear to spread rapidly. When SARS first presented ten years ago in China, it infected 8,000 victims worldwide within a matter of months, killing about 800 people. Although the new virus looks very similar to SARS, experts believe it may be zoonotic—spread to people from animals.
According to coronavirus expert Ralph Baric, an associate research professor at the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill, the possibility of the virus originating in large animal populations present in the Middle East is a logical one. He recommends biologists begin testing samples from animals in the region, particularly camels and goats. Baric also told CBS News the virus could have been spread to humans by bats in the area, especially since the two known infections occurred several months apart.
Another infectious disease expert, Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, agreed the transmission could have originated from bats. He advised CBS, however, that if bats had passed the virus to humans after being infected by another animal species, the more complex chain of transmission could put those infected in more jeopardy since the further a virus evolves the deadlier it can become.
WHO has not indicated the need for any global or regional travel restrictions. It has, however, called for health precautions as thousands of Muslims make the annual Haji pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in October. In addition to working with Saudi health officials, pilgrims are advised to wash hands frequently and wear face masks in public.
“Potentially Deadly Virus Related to SARS Appears to Be Not Easily Spread,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/world/new-virus-may-be-dangerous-but-seems-not-easily-spread.html
“Middle East SARS-like mystery virus may come from animals” CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-204_162-57522223/middle-east-sars-like-mystery-virus-may-come-from-animals/
“New Sars-like not easily transmitted says WHO,” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19756089
“Novel coronavirus infection – update,” World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/csr/don/2012_09_25/en/index.html