World on alert for potential spread of new SARS-like virus found in China
Had the nightmare returned? That's the question many were asking in the first 10 days of this year, after a new form of pneumonia emerged in Wuhan, a megacity in central China. The outbreak revived memories of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the disease that emerged in China in 2002 and sickened 8098 people in 37 countries before it was quashed in the summer of 2003. Like SARS, the Wuhan pneumonia cases were linked to a market selling myriad species of live animals, and they appear to be caused by a new member of the coronavirus family closely related to the SARS virus. And once again, China appeared to be less than forthcoming with information.To get more news about China Coronavirus Updates
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Today, global health experts are breathing a little easier. As Science went to press, only one of 42 people known to be infected had died: a 61-year-old man already suffering from abdominal tumors and chronic liver disease. (SARS had a 9.6% mortality rate.) No evidence suggests the virus easily passes between humans, which can turn a local problem into a global crisis. And Chinese researchers have now shared the sequence of six genomes of the as-yet-unnamed virus with the world.
Scientists in other countries have used the data. The World Health Organization (WHO) plans to soon publish a diagnostic test for the new virus that was developed by Christian Drosten, a virologist at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, and other researchers based on the sequences released by China. It detects fragments from three different genes in the novel coronavirus that are also present in the SARS virus. "We wanted to use SARS as a basis because every public health laboratory has SARS RNA as a positive control so they can get started immediately," says Drosten, noting that SARS itself has not been detected in humans in 15 years. Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is already trying to synthesize live virus from the data so that he can study it in animals and help develop a simple-to-use antibody test.
Still, many questions remain. Researchers have not identified the animal species at the marketplace that harbored the virus. When it emerged and the true number of people infected remain a mystery. Meanwhile, a case in Thailand, reported on 13 January—in a tourist who flew from Wuhan to Bangkok—led WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to consult experts on outbreak responses. The patient had not visited the Wuhan market at the center of the outbreak but had been to other animal markets, WHO reported on 14 January.
The first known patient developed symptoms—which can include difficulty breathing and fever—on 8 December 2019. Officials closed the seafood market on New Year's Day, and no new patients have been identified in Wuhan since 3 January. The virus was not found in 763 close contacts of those infected, or in health care workers, who often fall ill during outbreaks of viruses that can transmit between humans. "It is a limited outbreak," says Xu Jianguo, who runs an infectious disease laboratory at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and heads an evaluation committee that's advising the Chinese government. "If no new patients appear in the next week, it might be over."
WHO said in a 12 January statement that it was "reassured of the quality of the ongoing investigations and the response measures implemented in Wuhan, and the commitment to share information regularly."