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Coronavirus Raises SARS-Like Concerns Amid Dearth of Data

Coronavirus Raises SARS-Like Concerns Amid Dearth of Data
Egyptian medical workers wear masks as they leave the emergency section in King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, Saudi Arabia on June 16, 2013. Photographer: Yez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

The new coronavirus that’s 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 said today.

Eleven cases of the virus have been detected in France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. among people who traveled 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 estimate accurately the threat posed by the bug, according to the report.

“ECDC has to consider a number of underlying scenarios that are compatible with the information available,” the agency 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 sickened 64 people since September, according to the World Health Organization. The source of the outbreak hasn’t been identified, and recent infections in the Middle East indicate that the transmission is ongoing, the ECDC said.

Evacuation Danger

While most cases have been reported among middle-aged men with underlying health conditions, it’s 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, when China was criticized by the World Health Organization for a lack of cooperation in the first weeks of the outbreak, which killed 774 people and caused almost $40 billion in economic losses.

Saudi Arabia’s health ministry won’t be able to answer questions from Bloomberg News this week, a spokesman said.

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, according to the report.

“The number of transfers may increase as concern grows among clinicians and the public in the Middle East that there is a risk of MERS-CoV infection associated with hospitals in the area,” the ECDC said.

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