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SARS: Back to Stay?

A strain of a new SARS-like virus has just infected its fourth British victim, suggesting that SARS didn’t go away after its deadly 2002-3 outbreak. The virus, which experts are calling NCoV (novel coronavirus), has now infected 12 people globally, five of whom have died. Most of those sick with NCoV are from the Middle East, or have recently gone there. HuffPo has the story:

NCoV was identified when the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued an international alert in September 2012 saying a virus previously unknown in humans had infected a Qatari man in Britain who had recently been in Saudi Arabia.

The virus belongs to the same family as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome—a coronavirus that emerged in China in 2002 and killed about a tenth of the 8,000 people it infected worldwide. Symptoms common to both viruses include severe respiratory illness, fever, coughing and breathing difficulties.

Britain’s Health Protection Agency has said that there’s no danger of a widespread outbreak, but the fact that SARS’s virus siblings are still alive and kicking—and possibly jumping from human to human—is very unnerving. Even if there’s no immediate threat from NCoV, the longer SARS stays around and infects people, the greater chance there is of another mass outbreak like we saw in 2002. The scariest things about viruses like these is their ability to mutate quickly to avoid whatever defenses we create against them. All it takes is a slight mutation in its genetic material, and we could be left helpless, at the mercy of a much more dangerous outbreak than the one that swept across China in 2002.

In the nature of things, world health experts are like the little boy who keeps crying “Wolf!” Outbreaks of ebola, plague, SARS and other diseases are almost always contained. But high human population and rapid travel between countries and continents puts us in the danger zone, and we need to keep our eyes peeled, our labs funded, and our researchers on the job.

[Image: Shutterstock]

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