Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which include the common cold and Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). They cause respiratory infections in humans and animals, with four or five strains currently affecting humans. They are a species in the genera of virus belonging to the subfamily Coronavirinae in the family Coronaviridae.
EU agency expresses concern over lack of information on Sars-like virus
The new coronavirus that has killed 38 people, most of them in Saudi Arabia, may evolve into a health crisis reminiscent of Sars as a lack of information from the Arab world's largest economy impedes the fight against the outbreak, a European Union agency said.
Basic information about the disease, such as who is at risk, the virus's incubation period and its mode of transmission is still missing for most cases, despite Saudi Arabia's obligations to share such details under international health regulations, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said.
Eleven cases of the virus have been detected in France, Germany, Italy and Britain among people who travelled to the Middle East, or who have had contact with someone who has, suggesting that more imported cases can be expected, the Stockholm-based agency found in a risk-assessment document. The lack of information is making it impossible to accurately estimate the threat, according to the report.
"ECDC has to consider a number of underlying scenarios that are compatible with the information available," it said. "At this stage, it is not possible to exclude a future Sars-like scenario."
The new virus, dubbed Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, has made 64 people ill since September, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The source of the outbreak has not been identified, and recent infections in the Middle East indicate that the transmission is ongoing, the ECDC said.
While most cases have been reported among middle-aged men with underlying health conditions, it is not clear whether that group is more vulnerable to infection, or whether men are more likely to seek and receive health care in the Middle East, the report said.
"It is unusual to have such a degree of uncertainty at this stage in an outbreak," according to the ECDC.
The situation echoes the 2003 health crisis caused by Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. China was criticised by the WHO for a lack of co-operation in the first weeks of the outbreak, which killed 774 people worldwide.
Some companies have evacuated Middle East employees who suffer from other diseases, relocating them to Europe amid concern they may catch the virus in hospitals, the ECDC said. Those measures represent a "particularly high risk" for the introduction of cases in Europe. "The number of transfers may increase as concern grows," it said.