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SARS Virus Identity Confirmed


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SARS virus identity confirmed

WHO says tests confirm new coronavirus is cause

April 15 -- Hospitals across the United States have prepared isolation rooms to treat suspected SARS cases. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.


LONDON, April 16 — Scientists have confirmed the identity of the virus that causes the lethal new disease known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, the World Health Organization announced Wednesday. The discovery is an important first step toward eventually developing a vaccine or cure for the disease.

‘That whole genome is essentially new. Nature has been the terrorist throwing up this virus.’

— MALIK PEIRIS University of Hong Kong microbiologist

IN EXPERIMENTS conducted at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands, scientists infected monkeys with the coronavirus suspected of causing of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and found that the animals developed the same symptoms of the disease that humans do.

The test was a crucial step in verifying the cause of the disease, which so far has killed 161 people worldwide, mostly in China and Hong Kong, and made 3,235 people ill in 22 countries.

Verifying the cause is important to the development of new drugs to combat the disease and to the creation of a vaccine, should that be needed, as well as for the refinement of diagnostic tests that will help stop the disease spreading, said Dr. Klaus Stohr, a World Health Organization virologist.

It will also help scientists trace the evolution of the virus and could help them determine whether it jumped from animals to humans — as researchers strongly suspect — and, if so, from which animals. Tests are ongoing in pigs and poultry to see how susceptible those animals are to SARS.

Scientists were almost certain that a new form of coronavirus first isolated from sick patients on March 27 by the University of Hong Kong was the cause of SARS.


But they could not say for sure until they had satisfied what is known as the Koch’s postulates - four scientific tests that verify whether a bug causes a certain disease.

“The Koch’s postulates have been fulfilled, so we can now say for certain that the new coronavirus is the cause of SARS,†said Stohr, a World Health Organization virologist who is coordinating research into the disease.

Coronaviruses, named for the crownlike spikes that project from them when viewed on electron micrographs, are a little understood group of viruses that play a role in causing the common cold and also are known to infect animals.

Researchers at the University of Hong Kong also said Wednesday that a new genetic sequencing of the SARS virus proves conclusively that it came from animals.

But, the virus nonetheless is “something that is new to science,†university microbiologist Malik Peiris said before the WHO findings were announced.

Asked about the possibility that the virus was man-made, Peiris said there was no chance of that.

“That whole genome is essentially new,†he said. “Nature has been the terrorist throwing up this virus.â€

Researchers at a Singapore government-run institute reportedly are almost ready to begin trials of a test to detect the presence of SARS in a patient’s blood before the onset of symptoms.


The University of Hong Kong researchers also said they believe - but have not proven - that the virus mutated into a more dangerous form that infected about 300 people in one hard-hit apartment complex there.

“This virus did not originally exist in humans, it definitely comes from animals,†said Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong.

Canadian investigators announced Saturday that they had sequenced the genetic code of the SARS virus.

The Canadian scientists posted their findings on their Web site to help researchers around the world study the virus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced Monday that investigators there had confirmed the SARS sequence.

Many of the afflicted are doctors and nurses who contracted the infection in hospitals, which has prompted U.S. health workers to push the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to enact a regulation requiring hospitals to isolate infected persons.

The sole country outside Asia where SARS has proved fatal is Canada, where 13 have died, thousands have been quarantined, and some hospitals have been closed. In the United States, there are 174 suspected cases so far but no one has died.

“There is great anxiety among health care workers that it could happen here because of international travel,†James August, director of occupational safety and health at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Tuesday. “And there is no reason to think it couldn’t, given what happened in Toronto.â€


AFSCME, the union that represents U.S. workers including 300,000 to 350,000 nurses and acute care workers in the public and private sector, says the regulation, which OSHA has been mulling for the past decade, would protect health care workers from SARS, tuberculosis and other air-borne illnesses.

Scientists announced they have sequenced the SARS virus, pictured here in high magnification view.

It would require hospitals to set up isolation rooms under negative pressure and have on hand so-called N95 filtering respirators, among other controls.

Officials at the American Hospital Association and OSHA declined comment.

Many U.S. hospitals already maintain isolation rooms for airborne infections such as tuberculosis, a chronic lung disease that can be fatal.

“These rooms are constantly being used,†at Advocate Christ hospital in Chicago, said Stephen Sokalski, the hospital’s director of infectious diseases.

Some 5,000 U.S. hospitals are making their own preparations for treating SARS, yet the union says a mandate is crucial because such preparations are now voluntary.

Health officials say they are still not sure exactly how the virus spreads, although close contact with an infected person appears to be the main method of transmission. About 4 percent of those infected die.

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