A new virus similar to the one that triggered a deadly SARS outbreak in 2003 is beginning to spread throughout the Middle East and Europe, killing at least 18 people so far. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) hasn’t yet found evidence to suggest that the new SARS-like virus could spark a pandemic, WHO officials are now warning that it can likely be spread from prolonged human contact — a sign that public health officials across the globe need to be on alert.
The new strain of coronavirus — a family of pathogens that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more serious respiratory infections like SARS — originated in Saudi Arabia, and has since been detected in British and French citizens who recently traveled to the Middle East. In France, the virus spread between two patients who shared a hospital room. “The different clusters seen in multiple countries increasingly support the hypothesis that, when there is close contact, this novel coronavirus can transmit from person-to-person,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl explained in a statement.
The public health community typically defines “close contact” as spending a prolonged period of time in the same small, enclosed space with a person who is already infected. Fortunately, that means this type of coronavirus appears to be less contagious than the SARS virus that killed nearly 800 people around the world a decade ago.
Still, WHO officials are taking this situation seriously. “The emergence of this new coronavirus is globally recognized as an important and major challenge for all of the countries which have been affected as well as the rest of the world,” Hartl said in the recent WHO statement, going on to explain that “several urgent actions are needed” to help contain the virus’ spread. Hartl noted that the WHO is encouraging countries to increase public awareness about the new coronavirus, particularly among health care staff, and increase their levels of surveillance to monitor new cases of infection.
World health experts are particularly concerned because they haven’t been able to determine several important aspects of the virus’ spread. Medical professionals still don’t know the source of the virus, exactly how it’s being transmitted, and how easily it could spread from human-to-human contact. Saudi Arabia has invited scientists from the United States, Canada, and WHO to study the coronavirus strain further to help answer some of those questions.
And the new SARS-like pathogen isn’t the only outbreak that’s currently puzzling scientists. A new strain of the bird flu that has emerged in China has been called “one of the most lethal viruses of its kind” by WHO officials. Scientists haven’t yet been able to determine the origin of that virus, either. “Until we know how and where humans are contracting these two diseases, we cannot control them,” Hartl pointed out.