Is This Scary New Virus The Next SARS?

There’s been a four-letter word circulating through the media in recent weeks, one we haven’t heard for years: SARS, which stands for "severe acute respiratory syndrome," appears to be making a comeback—in headlines, at least—10 years after the previously unknown virus descended upon us.

Why the spike in interest in SARS? To date, 13 people have been infected with a totally new coronavirus that’s being compared to SARS. Seven of those infected have died—a mortality rate of over 50 percent. It started on September 7, 2012, when a Qatari man with respiratory problems and kidney failure was admitted to an intensive care unit in Doha, Qatar. Importantly, this man had also been to Saudi Arabia. On September 11, he was transferred to the United Kingdom, where the Health Protection Agency (HPA) discovered that he was infected with this new coronavirus. 

While the HPA was learning about this first case, the Erasmus Medical Center, in the Netherlands, was studying a gene sequence from an unclassified virus that had infected a 60-year-old Saudi Arabian man who’d died. The virus samples from the Qatari man and the Saudi Arabian were found to be almost identical.

By November 23, four more cases had sprung up, including one more death—all from Saudi Arabia. For a few months, all was quiet. Then, on February 11, 2013, the HPA reported a case of novel coronavirus in the U.K. in a patient who’d recently traveled to the Middle East. As of February 21, the global case count had reached its current tally of 13 infected, with seven deaths.

So does this new virus deserve to be compared with SARS, which took an estimated 750 lives and infected some 8,000 people? First, a quick biology lesson: All the organisms that cause us harm—called pathogens—can be divided into five groups: virusesbacteria, protozoa, fungi, and prions. Within viruses, there’s a type of virus called “coronaviruses,” and five of these can infect humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), most of us are infected with a coronavirus at some point in our lives. The result is usually a mild respiratory infection; in fact, the common cold is caused by a coronavirus. But so is SARS.

Some scientists say that it’s much too early to compare the new coronavirus to SARS. Volker Thiel, a researcher at Switzerland’s Institute of Immunobiology, explained recently to a Chinese newspaper that we don’t have yet enough information to tell which disease is more severe. What we do know is that there are distinct genetic differences between the two viruses. These differences have caused the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) to say definitively that this virus is not “SARS-like,” and “will not become SARS.”

But there are also some similarities. Apart from that fact that both belong to the coronavirus species, both can also sneak past our innate immune systems—that’s the first round of defense against microscopic invaders, as opposed to our adaptive immune system, which launches very specific attacks against specific pathogens. Both viruses also affect the respiratory tract and both popped up seemingly out of nowhere. And this last similarity may be why the comparison to SARS could work in describing the new coronavirus—it reminds us of the vulnerability we may have felt when SARS appeared on the scene a decade ago.

Jim Garrow of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health says that it does matter what we call something, since names signal to the public how we want them to react.  While some decry “SARS-like” for inducing unnecessary panic, Garrow credits the media for using language with which the average person can relate.

After all, SARS demonstrated that our global society is connected in ways we perhaps never fully understood, making it easier than ever for infectious diseases to travel thousands of miles and infect untold hundreds, thousands—or worse. The WHO suggests that the discovery of this new coronavirus demonstrates the value of the International Health Regulations, which require WHO member states to coordinate and manage threats to international public health. The SARS epidemic, in fact, helped provide a framework that allowed infectious disease specialists to identify this new virus early on.

For now, extensive research is being done to learn more about the new coronavirus. The HPA reinforces that, right now, the risk of human infection is low and the WHO has not issued any travel restrictions, though it doesadvise continued surveillance and testing for HCoV-EMC (the name by which this coronavirus goes) in any unexplained or severe respiratory illnesses or pneumonias.

So, for now, we watch—attentively—and wait, hopeful that this new virus doesn't take a turn for the worse.



Originally posted on as part of a Disease Daily and Take Part collaboration. 

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