Epidemiologists Trying to Track Down Novel Coronavirus

Coronavirus SARS

Electron micrograph of Coronavirus, the cause of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The new coronavirus, linked to different cases in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was named HCoV-EMC, short for human coronavirus and the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

The current situation has reminded many of the SARS outbreak of 2003, which spread from China to as far as Toronto and killed 916 people. The most recent coronavirus seems to be emerging slower than SARS and to date, only six cases have been reported. Two of the infections were fatal. There is a growing concern that the virus could start spreading from person to person, fanning out to infect more people around the globe.

The recently discovered cluster of illnesses in Saudi Arabia has raised these concerns. Four men living in the same house became sick with similar symptoms over a short period of time. Two tested positive for the virus. The other two, one of whom died, are classified as probable cases.

The source of the infection and the incubation period still remain unclear, so there might not be a definite answer about whether these family members were infected from a common source. The WHO has prompted countries to cast a wider net to search for additional cases. The source is probably more widespread than initially believed. Researchers are also wondering if this is actually a new virus or just newly come into view. If new, concerns about the virus should remain high. However, if this virus has been infecting people for years, and has only been spotted because of two severe cases, then it might be less of a threat.

Patients with similar symptoms should be tested if they are infected with the EMC virus. Britain has been testing returning sick pilgrims returning from this year’s Hajj. So far, there have been no additional cases.

There is no serological test for the virus, but this could soon change as HPA scientists are close to developing a blood test for the virus and it’s hoped that it will be ready by Christmas.

Another possibility is that the virus is new to humans, and comes from an animal source. It’s been hypothesized by virologists at Erasmus Medical Center that this coronavirus probably came from bats, possibly by direct contact or through fruit that was contaminated by their urine or saliva.

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