WHO seeks details on Sars-linked virus after two cases in Middle East

Hong Kong health authorities join counterparts around the world in calling for vigilance after two cases in Middle East are linked to infection

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2012, 7:00am


The World Health Organisation is urgently seeking more information about a new virus, linked to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), that has killed a Saudi Arabian and left a Qatari in critical condition.

The death was caused by a coronavirus, the family of viruses that contains Sars and the common cold. Hong Kong authorities said the chances of it spreading here were small and dismissed concerns of an outbreak like the 2003 Sars epidemic, which killed 299 people in the city and 774 worldwide.

The 49-year-old Qatari, who had visited Saudi Arabia, showed symptoms of an acute respiratory infection on September 3 and developed kidney failure. He was diagnosed and is being treated in Britain.

British scientists compared the gene sequences of the virus from the Qatari with samples of a virus sequenced by Dutch scientists from the lung tissue of a 60-year-old Saudi national who died earlier this year and found an almost complete match.

The Saudi link is a particular concern as millions of Muslims will visit the kingdom next month for the annual Haj pilgrimage.

Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai, controller of Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection, said the origin of the virus and the incubation period were not yet known, but it was not thought to be transferred between people as medical staff who treated the patients had not contracted the virus.

"This is not a Sars coronavirus, so we are not talking about the return of Sars," Tsang said. "From its behaviour, especially its [lack of] transmission among people, it's quite unlike the Sars coronavirus in 2003."

Dr Ho Pak-leung, a University of Hong Kong microbiologist, said it was possible the virus was transmitted from animals. Tests in the Netherlands showed the viral DNA is similar to that of a coronavirus found in bats.

"There is no need to avoid visiting Saudi Arabia, but people should avoid contact with wild animals," he said.

The Public Health Laboratory Centre has the capacity to detect the new virus and no cases of it in humans have been found so far in Hong Kong, according to a government statement.

The Centre for Health Protection will monitor the situation and get updates from the WHO, Tsang says. It has asked hospitals and clinics to be vigilant. If patients have symptoms of pneumonia having travelled in the Middle East, medical staff will notify the centre and the patients will be put under isolation.

He urged the public to take heed of personal hygiene and, when travelling, avoid going to crowded places, where respiratory viruses can easily spread. People with symptoms such as fever should go to the doctor immediately.

The WHO has not recommended any travel restrictions.

Reuters, Associated Press