Although no cases have been identified in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still cautioning U.S. doctors about a new coronavirus that has resulted in a 50-percent mortality rate overseas. According to the CDC’s March 7 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the World Health Organization has reported 14 confirmed cases of the virus between April 2012 and February 2013, with eight deaths. Genetic analysis of the virus has shown it is unique from other known human coronaviruses, such as the ones that cause SARS and the common cold.
The new virus—like SARS—causes fever, cough and breathing problems. Victims have also presented with kidney failure. Unlike the SARS outbreak of 2003, the new virus does not appear to spread rapidly. When SARS first presented 10 years ago in China, it infected 8,000 victims worldwide within a matter of months, killing about 800 people. Although the new virus looks very similar to SARS, experts first believed it to be zoonotic—spread to people from animals.
The majority of the cases have occurred in the Middle East, although a recent cluster of cases in the UK now provides evidence of human-to-human transmission, as well. Three cases within one family were identified in January and February. The index patient—a 60-year-old man who had recently traveled to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—developed respiratory symptoms Jan. 24 before returning to the UK Jan. 28. He was hospitalized Jan. 31, as another male in his household grew symptomatic Feb. 6 and died from the illness. A third family member, an adult female, developed symptoms Feb. 5 after contact with the index patient in the hospital. Fortunately, she recovered within two weeks. The index patient remains under intensive care.
Based on the recent cluster, the CDC is advising anyone who develops severe acute lower respiratory illness within 10 days of traveling from the Arabian Peninsula or neighboring countries to be evaluated by a physician using its guidelines. The same caution is extended to anyone who develops symptoms after close contact with a person who has traveled to the Middle East. The CDC will test specimens for the coronavirus.
With precautions in place, the CDC, WHO and other health experts have yet to discover the origin of the virus. Genetic sequencing shows it is closely related to the coronavirus found in bats, but a link has not been confirmed. Still, when the virus was discovered last year, coronavirus expert Ralph Baric, an associate research professor at the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill, said the possibility it originated in large animal populations present in the Middle East is a logical one. He recommended biologists begin testing samples from animals in the region, particularly camels and goats. Baric also told CBS News the virus could have been spread to humans by bats in the area, especially since the two known infections occurred several months apart.
Another infectious disease expert, Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, agreed the transmission could have originated from bats. He advised CBS, however, that if bats had passed the virus to humans after being infected by another animal species, the more complex chain of transmission could put those infected in more jeopardy since the further a virus evolves the deadlier it can become.