A deadly respiratory virus in the Middle East and U.K. is being monitored to see if it may evolve into a superbug like the 2002 SARS outbreak that killed almost 800 people, health officials said.
A novel coronavirus has infected 13 people, killing seven, Gwen Stephens, with the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health, said at an American Society for Microbiology biodefense conference in Washington today. The World Health Organization is trying to confirm reports of two additional cases, she said.
Health officials have seen individual cases and infections in family clusters as well as two probable cases of human-to-human transmission that could accelerate the spread of the pathogen. The earliest known are two hospital workers in Jordan who died in April and weren’t found to have the coronavirus until samples were tested in November.
“Are we looking at the tip of the iceberg, or are we making mountains out of molehills?” Alison Bermingham, with the U.K.’s Health Protection Agency, said at the conference.
Coronaviruses are a family of pathogens that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which sickened more than 8,000 people and killed 774 in 2002 and 2003, according to the WHO. While the new virus is related to the one that causes SARS, it appears far less transmissible, the WHO said.
SARS at first was sporadic, and once officials figured out what it was, it had spread to Hong Kong and Hanoi then to Toronto, Singapore, the U.S. and Thailand, Stephens said.
“There was no stopping it,” she said.
Coronavirus may have the potential to spread more widely, but not without acquiring multiple genetic changes, Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading in England, said last week.
The origin of the novel coronavirus hasn’t been identified, though one suggestion is bats, according to the WHO’s website. Most of those infected live in or traveled to the Middle East or Pakistan. The U.K. is investigating a family of three people with coronavirus, the first who traveled to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and two who had no travel history.
Stephens said today that men are becoming infected more than women, noting that in a family of three men who contracted the coronavirus, none of the wives who cared for them or their children became ill. Two women were infected as of Feb. 20.