New SARS-like virus found, man critically ill in UK

LONDON Mon Sep 24, 2012 11:10am EDT

The World Health Organisation (WHO) headquarters are pictured in Geneva April 27, 2009. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The World Health Organisation (WHO) headquarters are pictured in Geneva April 27, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

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LONDON (Reuters) - A Qatari man struck down with a previously unknown virus related to the deadly SARS infection and the common cold is critically ill in hospital in Britain, the World Health Organisation said on Monday.

The U.N. health body put out a global alert on Sunday saying a new virus had infected the 49-year-old man who had recently travelled to Saudi Arabia - where another man with an almost identical virus had already died.

Britain's Health Protection Agency (HPA) and respiratory disease experts said there was no immediate cause for concern, although authorities were watching out for any signs of the virus spreading.

"This new virus ... is different from any that have previously been identified in humans," the HPA said.

Any suggestions of a link between the virus and Saudi Arabia will cause particular concern in the build-up to next month's Muslim haj pilgrimage, when millions of people arrive in the kingdom from across the world, then return to their homes.

The virus, known as a coronavirus, comes from the same family as SARS which emerged in 2002 and killed 800 people.

"This is now an international issue," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said. "The (Qatari) patient is still alive but, as we understand, in critical condition," he said.

The HPA said it was recommending the Qatari patient be treated in isolation by doctors and nurses wearing gowns, gloves respirators, goggles and other protective equipment.

It did not recommend any specific actions for travelers or other members of the public.


The Qatari man first showed symptoms of an acute respiratory infection while he was in Qatar, the WHO said.

He spent some time in intensive case in Qatar and was later flown to the UK where he was currently in a London hospital's intensive care unit, being treated for acute respiratory infection and kidney failure. Officials declined to name the hospital.

Andrew Easton, a virologist at Britain's University of Warwick, said that with only two cases so far, it was difficult for experts to estimate the potential threat.

"The important thing is to be aware of the virus and to be on the lookout for any evidence that it is more than a rare chance event," he said.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that includes causes of the common cold but can also include more severe illness such as the virus responsible for SARS.

SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, appeared in China in 2002 and infected more than 8,000 people worldwide, killing around 800 of them before being brought under control.

John Oxford, a professor of Virology at Queen Mary, University of London, said he was not too concerned as the new virus was "more likely to join numerous other members of the coronavirus family and behave like a nasty infection rather than join the exception group like SARS".

"SARS was very quick off the mark infecting hospital staff," he said in an emailed comment. "And this new virus does not to me appear to be in the same ‘big bang' group."

The WHO said it was in touch with health authorities in Britain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)

"We're asking for information from whoever might have seen such cases, but as of the moment we haven't had any more notifications of cases," said Hartl.

The HPA said it had conducted lab testing on Qatari case and found a 99.5 percent match to a virus that killed a 60-year-old Saudi national earlier this year. The Saudi man's virus was not identified as a new kind of infection at the time of his death.

There was no evidence of ongoing transmission, said the head of the HPA's respiratory diseases department, John Watson.

"In the light of the severity of the illness that has been identified in the two confirmed cases, immediate steps have been taken to ensure that people who have been in contact with the UK case have not been infected, and there is no evidence to suggest they have," he said.

(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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Comments (5)
Once the next Spanish Flu type pandemic sweeps the planet, there won’t be enough doctors and hospitals to treat the very sick and dying. Medical professionals and workers are likely to be among the worst hit and unable to ply their skills, even if they dared to mix with the desperately ill with a lethal illness that, in essence, spreads through the air we all breathe.
It’s been a century since the last pandemic that wiped out huge swathes of people, and the next one, according to the experts, is long overdue. Worse yet, many of the medicines developed since the last pandemic no longer work.
When the pandemic eventually hits, probably sooner than later, don’t be surprised if the very sick persons next to you in the emergency ward of a hospital are members of Congress, Wall Street gurus, Mr. Romney, his family, and their physicians — only a fraction of which, including ourselves, will survive.
Bottom line is that whether health service charges are paid privately or out of the public purse during the next big pandemic, there will be few medical wizards, if any, to help you and me survive, never mind them submitting a bill.

Sep 24, 2012 2:05pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Alamanach wrote:
@RudyHaugeneder: the old drugs may not work, but there is still much to be said for clear fluids and bed rest. (That’s basically the only way to recover from any virus anyway; there are immunizations against certain viral diseases, but zero cures.) Then there’s the vigor of youth. Those who survive will have acquired immunity, and will be in high demand to care for the others. If you are old or frail, don’t be among the first to get sick.

What worries me is the happenstance combination of SARS + the Hajj. That’s like something right out of a novel, and it’s happening just as the Arab world is particularly fragile and unstable.

Sep 24, 2012 4:43pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
joshua77 wrote:
Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down

Sep 24, 2012 7:43pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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