UK health officials diagnose potentially fatal SARS-like virus

A 49-year-old Qatari male is currently being treated at a London-based hospital after contracting a new respiratory virus that is quite similar to that which claimed the lives of roughly 800 people back in 2003.

The man was transferred to the London hospital via air ambulance and was subsequently tested by health experts, who confirmed that the patient had a ‘SARS-like’ coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are mainly known to infect the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tract of mammals and birds, but they are thought to be responsible for the majority of common colds within humans and there are currently around five different strains that can infect humans.

The SARS coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome), made headlines in 2002 after first coming to prominence in Hong Kong and ended up spreading to 30 other countries before the condition was finally contained in 2003. It was spread through sneezing and coughing with initial symptoms including muscular pain, headache and fever. After 2 to 10 days respiratory problems begin to develop such as coughing, dyspnoea, and pneumonia. Of the people who contracted SARS during the 2002/2003 outbreak, 9% succumbed to it, with mortality rates especially high in those over 50-years of age.

The patient with the latest case of a SARS-like virus was first admitted to an intensive care unit in Doha, Qatar, on September 7 after complaining of symptoms four days previously. Then on September 11 the patient was transferred to the UK to receive more treatment.

This is the second recent confirmed case of a serious coronavirus as earlier in the year a 60-year-old Saudi national died as a result of his respiratory problems and The Health Protection Agency (HPA) say the two cases are identical. The HPA made the discovery after analysing gene sequences of the virus from the Qatari patient with samples of virus sequenced by Dutch scientists from lung tissue of the Saudi male who died.

Peter Openshaw, director of the Centre for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London, wanted to alleviate any mass panic and stressed that the novel virus should not prove to be a major concern at this time and may have simply been found because of more intelligent testing methods. He commented, “For now, I would be watchful but not immediately concerned.”

Professor John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA, added, “The HPA is providing advice to healthcare workers to ensure the patient under investigation is being treated appropriately. 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 that they have. As we are aware of only two cases worldwide and there is no specific evidence of on-going transmission, at present there is no specific advice for the public or returning travellers to take but we will share any further advice with the public as soon as more information becomes available.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) have so far yet to state any travel restrictions after the discovery of the illness, with a spokesman from WHO saying, “WHO is currently in the process of obtaining further information to determine the public health implications of these two confirmed cases.”

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