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New Sars-Like Bug: Pandemic Potential?

/ Source: Discovery Channel

A new virus has health officials on alert: Earlier this year, a Saudi Arabian patient died from a new coronavirus, the family of viruses that includes both the common cold and the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak of 2003.

Now, health officials think a 49-year-old Qatari man who had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia has the same virus, and five people, including a family of four, have been isolated in a Danish hospital with similar symptoms. One of the family members had traveled to Saudi Arabia, and the unrelated person had been to Qatar.

The World Health Organization is urging health care workers around the world to report new cases of patients with acute respiratory infections who have traveled to Saudi Arabia or Qatar, bracing for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in a month, which draws over two million people from around the world to Saudi Arabia. Symptoms include fever, cough and difficulty in breathing.

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Still, most experts say there are too many unknowns to say whether the new virus has pandemic potential.

"At this point in time, the alert is going out because of detection, for global surveillance," said Dr. Jonathan Temte, chair of the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "I would advise for no one to lose any sleep over it. There are bad viruses emerging all the time and most we never even know exist."

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"Nobody knows at this point if we should be concerned about it," confirmed Michael Osterholm, a flu expert at the University of Minnesota, told Discovery News. Still, he pointed out to The Associated Press, no one dies from a cold -- and the flu shot will not prevent this strain.

What made the 2003 SARS outbreak so extraordinary, Temte said, in addition to its mortality rate, was its incredibly rapid transmission rate, especially in health care settings. So far, that hasn't been seen with the new virus.

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"I feel somewhat relaxed because this is more likely to join numerous other members of the Coronavirus family and behave like a nasty infection rather than join the 'exception' group like SARS," John Oxford, Professor of Virology at Queen Mary, University of London, said in a press release."This new virus does not to me appear to be in the same 'big bang' group. ...  Incidentally, there are plenty more respiratory viruses to be discovered and they come in at one per year."

Since SARS, which spread to 29 countries within months and killed close to 9-12 percent of the people it infected, monitoring techniques have improved and health care officials are now detecting more viruses that in the past would not have been found -- most of which will peter out before causing widespread health problems, many experts noted.

"If that is the situation we may see no, or very few, further cases," Andrew Easton, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said in a press release. "However, the identification of the virus will most likely lead to closer scrutiny of past and future cases so we will rapidly be able to formulate views on the potential threat that the virus may pose.