One man is believed to have died and another is in critical condition after developing a new SARS-related respiratory virus that appears to have originated in the Middle East.

As a result, officials from the World Health Organization are on high alert over concerns the coronavirus, which is from the same family of viruses that cause the common cold and SARS, could spread.

“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,” said a statement from the WHO.

The most recent case that drew the attention of health officials was a 49-year-old Qatari man who had travelled to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, or Islamic pilgrimage, then sought treatment on Sept. 3 after returning home.

On Sept. 7, he was placed in intensive care in Doha, Qatar, then transferred by air ambulance to the U.K. on Sept. 11.

The British Health Protection Agency then conducted tests on the man and confirmed the presence of a coronavirus, and later matched that virus using lung tissue samples from another patient who had also travelled to Saudi Arabia. The patient is currently in intensive care in London due to kidney failure resulting from the virus.

In the earlier case, a 60-year-old Saudi national who died was identified by the Netherlands’ Erasmus University Medical Centre as having a coronavirus. That case was a 99.5 per cent match for the most recent case, the WHO said.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Neil Rau said he doesn’t think the disease shares many characteristics with SARS, beyond the fact they are both coronaviruses, which have a crown-like shape when viewed under a powerful microscope. SARS killed more than 800 people in 2003, mostly in Asia. In Canada, thousands of people were placed under quarantine during the SARS outbreak. In total, 251 SARS cases were confirmed in Canada and 44 people died from the disease.

“One thing that’s a little reassuring is that unlike SARS where you have clusters of cases, lots of people with a serious disease and a similar disease all in one place, these seem to be…very serious cases but far apart and not necessarily related to each other, the common thread being they’ve been in Saudi Arabia for the hajj,” Rau told CTV News Channel.

Saudi officials have said they are worried about the upcoming hajj pilgrimage next month, when millions of Muslims from around the world typically travel to Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials are advising pilgrims to keep their hands clean and wear masks in crowded places.

Rau said officials need more information about the virus and will begin to gather that data by observing anyone who has been in contact with the confirmed carriers of the virus, and watching for secondary cases to develop.

“And of course the WHO will be in the Middle East doing a lot of testing to see how widespread this virus already is. My hunch is this virus is already going to be widespread but that it’s not as deadly as it appears.”

It is not yet clear whether the virus is spread through the air, by human-to-human contact or from contact with animals.

At this point, the WHO is not recommending any travel restrictions for visitors to Saudi Arabia, which is expected to have large numbers of visitors in coming weeks as the Islamic pilgrimage season gets underway.