The World Health Organization recently released an alert about a new SARS-like infection that has potential to spread from person to person. SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is a lethal form of pneumonia, caused by a virus. The mysterious new illness is a virulent strain of coronavirus, which mimics the symptoms of SARS and can potentially lead to rapid onset respiratory failure.
"This virus is a member of a family of viruses that causes respiratory infections. It can range from the common cold all the way to SARS, which kills you," explains Dr. Brad Spellberg, an infectious disease specialist from UCLA Medical Center. "This strain has never been seen before. It seems to be in the Middle East — that's where almost all the cases have been acquired."
To date, there have been 13 reported incidents, resulting in seven deaths, but human-to-human transfers have only been documented in a couple of cases. There is currently no known reservoir for the virus, but researchers speculate that it could be transmitted by bats. The WHO is currently not recommending any active screenings to test for the specific infection. "This is not sustained person-to-person transmission," Dr. Spellberg says. "That suggests there is not a big risk of a big epidemic occurring. Think about the number of people that live in or go to these countries, and we've had 13 cases worldwide in six months."