The U.K. Health Protection Agency has confirmed two cases of the novel coronavirus this week.
First, the facts. The first case, confirmed in a press release on Feb. 11, had recently traveled to the Middle East and Pakistan. The second case, confirmed this morning (Feb. 13), is a family member of the first. The two reportedly had close personal contact. According to the HPA, the second case does not have a recent travel history but does have underlying medical conditions that may increase susceptibility to respiratory infection.
Now, the analysis. The HPA is calling this “strong evidence” of person-to-person transmission of the novel coronavirus.
As this news makes various headlines, tweets and blog posts, it is important to remember a few things. First, this novel virus, which is often called “SARS-like” (rather than ‘novel coronavirus’) is different from SARS itself. There are many coronaviruses, andonly a handful affect humans. According to the CDC, these viruses usually cause “mild to moderate upper-respiratory illness.” The common cold is a coronavirus. The CDC also explicitly states that the novel coronavirus, tentatively called London1_novel CoV 2012, is not the same as SARS. WHO Spokesman Gregory Hartl emphasized this point during a Sept. 25 press conference: “It is a new virus, it is novel, it is distinct from SARS.”
Second, Professor John Watson, the head of the respiratory disease department at the HPA, explains that while this incident provides evidence of person-to-person transmission, the risk of infection in most circumstances remains extremely low. If this virus were as infectious as SARS, we would have seen more cases. Meanwhile, this is an important finding as it guides prevention measures and indicates that health authorities should (and will) follow up with contacts of patients. No travel bans have been instituted.
For more on SARS, please check out this excellent piece by Jason Hayes for The Disease Daily.