updated 8/21/2003 5:55:49 AM ET 2003-08-21T09:55:49

It looks like SARS and acts like a milder version of the disease that has killed 44 people in Canada, but officials doubt the respiratory illness that swept through a British Columbia nursing home is severe acute respiratory syndrome.

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Nearly 150 residents and staff members at Kinsmen Place Lodge in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb, fell ill in recent weeks with sniffles and other symptoms much less severe than the headaches and pneumonia associated with SARS.

Most have completely recovered, but six of the residents died of pneumonia-related illness. The latest death, reported Tuesday, was an elderly woman who had typical pneumonia symptoms rather than the distinct pneumonia symptoms of SARS.

The problem is that tests on an unspecified number of the nursing home cases, including three of six who died of pneumonia, found a coronavirus similar to the one that causes SARS.

WHO virologist Dr. Katrin Leitmeyer arrived Tuesday in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to study the tests at Canada’s national disease laboratory, WHO spokesman Iain Simpson said Wednesday in Geneva.

“The question is — was this indeed the coronavirus that causes SARS?” Simpson said. “If so, how come it hasn’t caused SARS as we understand it in this case, and if not, how come the test results came back positive?”

While the test results are a mystery, Simpson said the U.N. agency remains unconvinced of a new SARS outbreak.

“As far as we’re concerned, there are no cases of SARS currently in Vancouver or indeed anywhere else,” he said.

Possible theories include sections of the virus matching the SARS virus without the entire structure being the same, Simpson said. Further test results are expected in coming weeks.

The Fraser Health Board that oversees health management in suburban Vancouver said reports that an outbreak occurred at a second facility were wrong.

Board spokesman Don Bower said 11 of 101 residents and six of 129 staff members at the unidentified second facility came down with a summer cold, and all had recovered.

“All testing has been negative,” Bower said.

Dr. David Patrick, director of epidemiology at the B.C. Center for Disease Control, said Tuesday that more testing was required to determine if the coronavirus detected so far is SARS.

“If this is the SARS coronavirus, which is one possibility, we’re definitely uncovering a different pattern of illness than the one described in the spring,” Patrick said. “We know that this could be a mutated SARS coronavirus that has lost virulence and that’s the favorite hypothesis among many people.”

Canada’s largest city, Toronto, was the epicenter of the biggest SARS outbreak outside of Asia, with almost 250 people sickened and 44 of them dying this year. Only four confirmed SARS cases have been reported in British Columbia, more than 1,000 miles west on the Pacific coast.

The Toronto SARS outbreak brought a WHO warning against nonessential travel to the city, which devastated the spring and summer tourism industry.

Fear of further economic problems from another Canadian SARS outbreak may be causing authorities to play down the British Columbia situation, warned Dr. Henry Niman, a Harvard Medical School surgery instructor who has closely followed the global SARS epidemic.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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