Virus Trackers Grapple With Unknowns as Coronavirus Spreads

Health officials are grappling with unanswered questions as they struggle to understand the threat posed by the new coronavirus that’s killed more than half the people diagnosed with the respiratory infection.

The pathogen, which is related to the SARS virus that killed 774 people a decade ago, has killed 18 of the 34 people known to have been infected in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the U.K. and France, the World Health Organization said in a statement yesterday. Saudi Arabia, which has had the most fatalities, reported a further two deaths among existing cases yesterday, taking the total to 20.

Virus trackers don’t know where the pneumonia-causing virus came from, how it’s spreading, how widespread it is and how many people may be infected without showing any symptoms, Keiji Fukuda, the Geneva-based WHO’s assistant director-general for health security and the environment, told reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia yesterday.

“The big question is, how do people get infected in the first place: where’s it coming from?” Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman, said by phone today. “We’re really no closer to an answer today than we were yesterday.”

Coronaviruses are a family of pathogens that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to SARS, which sickened more than 8,000 people 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 has said.

French Cases

France reported a second case yesterday, in a patient who shared a hospital room with the first case, a man who fell ill after returning from a trip to the United Arab Emirates. The case provides further evidence that the virus can be passed from person-to-person, the WHO said.

Air France-KLM Group slumped 4 percent in Paris today and British Airways parent IAG SA slid 1.9 percent in London amid concern that the spread of the virus may reduce travel demand.

Saudi Arabia has invited scientists from New York’s Columbia University and other specialists from Canada, the U.S. and the WHO to study the outbreak, the Saudi Ministry of Health said.

The pathogen’s ability to spread between people has been suspected at least since February, when it was found in a relative of a man diagnosed in the U.K. after traveling to the Middle East. Still, there’s no evidence the virus is capable of sustained person-to-person transmission, the WHO said.

“Although the virus has not reached the point of causing a pandemic, it does have potential to cause pandemic if it acquires the ability to transmit efficiently in the human population,” Sue Huang, director of a WHO research laboratory in Wellington, New Zealand, in an e-mailed statement today.

Most of the infected people have been older men, often with other medical conditions, the WHO has said.

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