Consultant tells of battle to prevent deadly outbreak of Sars-like virus

London consultant returns to his home city to share experiences dealing with Sars-like virus

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 4:02am

The tests on the 49-year-old man lying ill in St Thomas' Hospital in London last year were confusing.

"The patient tested positive for coronavirus, but he also tested negative for each and every known coronavirus," virologist Tong Cheuk-yan said. "It was then that I started to suspect it might be a new virus."

The Hong Kong-graduated doctor was speaking about the tense situation in which he diagnosed the first patient in England with the deadly new Sars-like virus.

"We could not find a match on his virus," said Tong, a consultant for the Barts Health NHS Trust.

"But we noticed on the very same day that there was a report about a novel coronavirus in Saudi Arabia. We started to suspect it due to the patient's travel history. It was lucky that we … related it to the new virus in the Middle East within 24 hours."

The patient had fallen ill on a visit to his homeland, Qatar, and was airlifted to London. He was treated in a private hospital before being admitted to St Thomas' on September 20.

Tong, in his fifties, worked in local public hospitals for several years until deciding to make his career in England 23 years ago.

He returned to his home city to attend a conference to share his experience in battling the virus, which has sickened 34 people and killed 18 worldwide - although none so far confirmed in Hong Kong.

Tong recalled how the atmosphere had become "quite nervous" when staff realised the virus was related to Sars.

"Off-duty staff had to return to the hospital to help," he said. Thanks to a quick response and tight infection control, none of the staff became infected. "The outcome could have been very severe if there had been an outbreak in the hospital," he said.

The Qatar man remained in intensive care on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation - which pumps out the blood, oxygenates it and returns it to the body - and would need a lung transplant, Tong said.

The World Health Organisation said on Sunday an investigation was under way into an outbreak at a health-care facility in Saudi Arabia where 15 people have been infected and seven have died.

Tong will speak at a two-day annual convention organised by the Hospital Authority.