Wuhan respiratory virus linked to SARS, MERS family

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The mysterious respiratory disease that has afflicted more than 50 people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan since late 2019 appears to be a new virus in the same family as those that caused the deadly SARS and MERS outbreaks, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says.

A preliminary investigation has now identified the respiratory disease as a new type of coronavirus, Chinese state media reported Thursday, citing scientists handling the investigation.

Chinese researchers made their preliminary determination through gene sequencing of the virus from one patient, according to the WHO.

“China has strong public health capacities and resources to respond and manage respiratory disease outbreaks,” says Gauden Galea, WHO’s China representative, adding that the speed at which authorities made their preliminary determination was a “notable achievement and demonstrates China’s increased capacity to manage new disease outbreaks.”

The global health body says it needs to gather more comprehensive information over coming weeks, “to understand the current status and epidemiology of the outbreak.” This includes its source, modes of transmission, the extent of infection, and what countermeasures are in place. No specific precautions were necessary for travelers, WHO adds.

As of Sunday, local authorities reported 59 people with the illness. Seven were in critical condition, while the rest were stable. Eight were discharged Wednesday night after they didn’t exhibit any more symptoms for several days.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses first identified in humans in the mid-1960s. Some cause the common cold, while others found in bats, camels and other animals have evolved into more severe illnesses.

Common symptoms include a runny nose, headache, cough and fever. Shortness of breath, chills and body aches are associated with more dangerous kinds of coronavirus.

Many coronaviruses can spread through coughing or sneezing, or by touching an infected person, but officials said the present illness is not easily transmitted between people.

The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said some of the infected patients ran businesses in a seafood market, meaning it’s possible they were infected by animals there. The market is being suspended and investigated.

SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, belongs to the coronavirus family, but Chinese state media say the illness in Wuhan is different from coronaviruses that have been identified in the past. Earlier laboratory tests ruled out SARS and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), as well as influenza, bird flu, adenovirus and other common lung-infecting germs.

SARS emerged as a novel coronavirus in 2002, first infecting people in southern China, then spreading to more than two dozen countries. More than 8,000 people were sickened and more than 700 died. No new cases have been reported since 2004.

Another form of coronavirus causes MERS, an illness that began in Jordan and Saudi Arabia in 2012 before spreading to about two dozen other countries. It has resulted in more than 800 deaths, with the majority reported from Saudi Arabia.

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