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U of M Expert: Still too early to know path and impact of new SARS-like virus

The World Health Organization (WHO) has taken the next step in preventing the spread of a new SARS-like illness that has been confirmed in two people thus far.

Earlier today, the organization urged health care workers around the world to immediately report patients with acute respiratory infections who recently traveled to Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

One person remains in critically ill in London after being sickened with a coronavirus with SARS-like symptoms in Qatar, and earlier today, CBS reported SARS-like symptoms in a family of four and another person who have since been put under isolation in a Danish hospital.  Earlier this year, a man in Saudi Arabia died as a result of a similar illness.

For their part, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said the new virus is not SARS, will not become SARS and is not SARS-like.

Still, while the public interest in the new virus rises, University of Minnesota infectious disease expert Mike Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H., stressed earlier this week that it’s still too early to know which path the new virus will take.

“We don’t know if this is going to turn into another SARS or if it will disappear into nothing,” Osterholm told the Associated Press (AP) on Monday, adding that it was crucial to determine the ratio of severe to mild cases to properly assess the virus and its potential impact.

According to the AP report:

“Osterholm also said more information was needed on how the virus is spread — whether it’s spread as easily as a common cold or, as in the case of SARS, mostly through close contact and via specific medical procedures like a lung intubation.

He said it was worrying that there had been at least one death from the new virus.

“You don’t die from the common cold,” he said. “This gives us reason to think it might be more like SARS.”

So far, no health care workers have shown signs of the illness as a result of caring for the two patients with the confirmed virus.  The WHO has stated they’re actively working to characterize the novel coronavirus via genetic sequencing and setting up a network of laboratories that can provide counsel on coronaviruses to countries across the world.

Some experts have commended the initial response, citing technology and scientific advancements since 2003’s SARS outbreak that have allowed medical experts to put the emphasis on anticipating the next steps of the virus rather than trying to simply react to its path.

A SARS outbreak between November 2002 and July 2003 infected more than 8,000 people worldwide, killing 774.


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