WHO urges careful testing as threat of new coronavirus still not understood
Published Wednesday, February 20, 2013 10:00PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 20, 2013 10:55PM EST
A newly identified virus that comes from the same family as SARS has many worried that the world could be facing a threatening new pandemic. But it’s still unclear how much of a danger this new virus presents.
The virus has been dubbed EMC, after the Erasmus Medical Centre where it was first identified, or sometimes just NCoV, for “novel coronavirus.”
It was first identified in September, when the World Health Organization issued an international alert saying a completely new virus had infected a Qatari man from Britain who had recently travelled to Saudi Arabia.
Since then, 12 cases have been identified, including a cluster of cases reported last week in a British family.
While there have so far been only a handful of known cases, half of those have resulted in death. That’s led many to worry about how virulent this new virus might be.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) encouraged countries around the world to keep a close eye on any cases of acute respiratory infections within their borders, asking them to carefully review any unusual patterns.
Specifically, the global health body suggested testing for the new coronavirus should be considered in patients with unexplained pneumonias, as well as those with unexplained or complicated respiratory illness who aren’t responding to treatment.
The new coronavirus appears to cause severe pneumonia and sometimes kidney failure. While most of the cases have been related to travel to the Middle East, two family members of a man who just died in Britain appeared to pick up their infections through person-to-person contact.
That’s why health officials around the world are tracking the virus carefully, trying to understand how it spreads and how dangerous it is.
On Wednesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it “continues to monitor the situation” and any suspect cases will be sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory for examination.
However, the agency warned that “the risk to Canadians is low.
“Evidence suggests that the novel coronavirus is not efficiently transmissible between humans and has greater effects on people with pre-existing medical conditions,” the agency said in an email statement to CTV News, noting that the number of worldwide cases has been “very limited” since it was first detected.
On Tuesday, European scientists revealed the new virus easily infects the cells of the airways of the human lung. In fact, the virus is as adept at infecting the cells of the upper airways as the one that caused SARS and one that causes common colds – which are also from the coronavirus family.
At this point, though, it’s still not known how easily it spreads and how virulently it causes illness.
“What we need to be watching for are any signs that this virus gains the ability to transmit efficiently from human to human,” the WHO’s Gregory Hartl told reporters this week. “So far, we have seen no signs of efficient transmission in humans.”
So far, it seems, the virus does not cause illness very easily, and that has infectious diseases experts, such as Dr. Neil Rau, reassured.
“I don't think it is a big cause for concern at this stage,” he told CTV News. “…I think we need a lot more info on whether this is a rarely encountered virus that often kills, or quite widespread but rarely can kill people.”
Rau says there is a lot of interest in this virus because it comes from the same family as SARS. But so far it doesn’t appear to be anything like SARS, which affected more than 8,000 patients within months of its emergence in China and caused more than 700 deaths.
“I think the great deal of interest in this virus is that it is from the same family as the SARS virus but the overall pattern of disease is very, very different and very, very reassuring,” Rau said.
Volker Thiel, one of the immunobiologists who released this week’s research, says he was surprised at how easily the virus could infect cells. But he cautioned that doesn't mean the virus can easily pass from person to person.
"We have shown that the airway cells can easily be infected. But this does not mean that the virus can easily be transmitted," he told The Canadian Press. "I think this distinction is important."
With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip