The new bug is a coronavirus, a family that includes the agent of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which caused more than 8,000 infections and 900 deaths in 2003. The SARS coronavirus is also carried by bats.
“It is perplexing. But it is the very early days,” said Nick Phin, an epidemiologist at the British government’s Health Protection Agency who is helping investigate the case of the Qatari patient, who is in an intensive care unit of a London hospital.
The goal is to determine as quickly as possible whether the new virus is a threat to public health or a one-off event that in less vigilant times might have been missed entirely. So far there is no evidence of other, unexplained cases of severe pneumonia with kidney failure, which are the hallmarks of the two cases.
“We should keep our feet on the ground. Two birds don’t make a summer and two patients don’t make an outbreak,” said Ron A.M. Fouchier, a virologist at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. Fouchier determined the gene sequence of the new virus and posted it for other investigators to see and use.
With no sign that the virus is transmitted from person-to-person or is easily picked up from animals, the advice to the public “has to be go about your normal business,” Phin said.
Fouchier’s laboratory isolated the new coronavirus from lung tissue from a 60-year-old Saudi man who was admitted to a hospital in Jeddah on June 13 and died June 24.
The Qatari patient became ill on Sept. 3 and was hospitalized in Doha a few days later. On Sept. 11, he was sent by air ambulance to England. There, a coronavirus was isolated from lung fluid and partially sequenced.
The Qatari man had recently visited Saudi Arabia. But he returned home more than 10 days before he became ill, according to a report by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm. Because the incubation period for coronavirus infections is about a week, that suggests he acquired the virus in Qatar, not Saudi Arabia.
Fouchier said Thursday the virus from the Qatari patient is 99.5 percent identical to the one from the Saudi patient, confirming both were infected with the same strain.
The researchers assume the virus caused the patients’ illnesses, although that has not been proved. Coronaviruses are one cause of the common cold. It’s possible the new virus could be another one of them.
To test the strain’s virulence, Fouchier’s lab will infect macaque monkeys and ferrets with it. Ferrets are considered good models of human respiratory infections, and macaques were used to prove the pathological effects of the SARS virus.