updated 11/4/2003 7:09:55 PM ET 2003-11-05T00:09:55

Disease experts said Thursday the SARS virus appears to be just as hardy in its 15th victim as its first one. The virus’ robust nature suggests it is well-adapted to reproducing inside the human body, meaning its ability to spread isn’t weakening, health experts said.

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There had been hope that, like some viruses, this one might lose its punch over time, mutating and weakening. However, Dr. David Heymann, the World Health Organization’s chief of communicable diseases, said that does not appear to have happened and that scientists estimate the SARS virus has passed through chains of up to 15 people.

SARS not weakening
“The human monkeypox virus comes out of an animal into humans. It causes disease and it transmits maybe to one or two generations, but by the time it has gone through that, it never transmits further,” Heymann said.

SARS, however, does not appear to be weakening. WHO experts are still trying to determine the maximum number of people who have become infected in a single chain. Fifteen is as far as they got.

“With an incubation period of about 10 days, that would be three chinks a month in the chain, so that’s how we come up with the 15,” he said. “The hypothesis still remains that this all came from one person, so it has passed through many, many people on it’s way out through the world.”

“We think it’s a virus that will continue to transmit in humans unless we interrupt its transmission by isolation and containment,” Heymann said.

SARS was first reported five months ago in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and scientists have traced some infections today back to one original case in the province.

More than 8,000 people have been infected worldwide, with a death toll of 684. In recent weeks, the island of Taiwan has been hardest-hit, with 20,000 people in quarantine and health experts talking about the need for more quarantine space.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said Thursday that doctors’ difficulty in diagnosing SARS cases may have led to hospital outbreaks in both Taiwan and Singapore.

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