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New virus akin to SARS reported; man hospitalized in London

September 24, 2012 | 10:10 am

A Qatari man hospitalized in London is suffering a severe infection in the same family as the SARS virus that killed hundreds and sickened thousands across the globe roughly a decade ago, the World Health Organization and British authorities have announced. The hospitalized man is the second of two known cases this year.

The 49-year-old man, who had a history of traveling to Saudi Arabia, showed symptoms of the illness three weeks ago and was admitted to an intensive care unit in Doha four days later, according to  WHO officials. He was transferred to Britain by air ambulance on Sept. 11.

The virus, detected with laboratory testing, was very similar to another virus that killed a 60-year-old patient from Saudi Arabia earlier this year, the health organization said in a statement Sunday. Both are coronaviruses, a large family of viruses that cause a range of ailments from the common cold to SARS. The two people known to have been infected with the new virus were struck with fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

The new virus is different than any previously identified in humans, the British Health Protection Agency said. Health officials are still investigating where it came from and how it is spread; similar viruses are typically passed when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes.

So far, there is no evidence that the two infected people passed the virus to other people they were in contact with, including healthcare workers, the British agency said.  The virus does not appear to be highly contagious, since if it were, there would likely be more cases by this point, it explained.

“Based on what we know about other coronaviruses, many of these contacts will already have passed the period when they could have caught the virus from the infected person,” the agency added.

But a “small number” of other recent cases of severe respiratory illness in the Middle East are being investigated to check if they are linked. The WHO has yet to recommend any travel restrictions.

“Given that this is a novel coronavirus, WHO is currently in the process of obtaining further information to determine the public health implications of these two confirmed cases,” it said.

Saudi officials are particularly concerned about the upcoming Hajj pilgrimage that brings millions of people to Saudi Arabia, advising pilgrims to wear masks in crowded places and keep their hands clean, the Associated Press reported. The pilgrimage has been the epicenter of previous disease outbreaks.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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