How China’s Mystery Pneumonia Illness is Different From SARS

A mysterious outbreak of pneumonia in central China that has been causing alarm has been linked to a new coronavirus, a family of bugs responsible for diseases that range in severity from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. Because some of the patients worked at a seafood market where birds, snakes, and organs of rabbits and other game were also reportedly sold, there was concern that the pathogen might have come from animals as SARS probably did — reviving memories of the epidemic that killed almost 800 people about 17 years ago. But health officials say the differences are more significant.

1. What’s the worry?
The outbreak in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, appears severe. Dozens of people have been hospitalized since the first patient developed symptoms Dec. 12. A handful were in serious condition. On the other hand, at least eight patients have been discharged and no fatalities had been reported as of Jan. 9. There also haven’t been any cases of health-care workers becoming infected, which supports early findings that the disease probably isn’t being transmitted from person to person. That reduces the potential of it spawning an outbreak like SARS, which began in China and swept across the globe, infecting thousands of people.

2. What are the symptoms?
Mainly fever, with some patients having difficulty breathing, and chest X-rays showing invasive lesions of both lungs, the World Health Organization said. However, only cases requiring hospitalization have been reported so far. It’s possible other people have been infected and experienced no, or only mild, symptoms.

3. What could cause it?
Chinese authorities preliminarily identified a novel (not seen before) coronavirus in one of the pneumonia patients hospitalized in Wuhan after conducting gene sequencing, the WHO said. China Central Television said further research is needed, but early findings show it is different from the SARS coronavirus. While it can cause severe illness in some patients, it doesn’t transmit readily between people, the WHO quoted the Chinese authorities as saying. Chinese investigators had previously checked for known respiratory infections and ruled out pathogens that cause flu, avian influenza, SARS and a related virus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV.

4. What’s a coronavirus?
There’s a large family of them, with some causing less-severe diseases, some more. Some transmit easily from person to person, while others do not. There’s growing recognition of the role of coronaviruses in cases of severe pneumonia. The WHO noted that new ones emerge periodically in different areas globally, and several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that haven’t infected humans.

5. What is China doing?

Authorities in Wuhan say they are providing the best-possible medical care. Patients have been isolated to prevent any potential spread. Health officials are also looking for, screening and monitoring people the patients had contact with, and searching for current and past cases that may have been treated in medical institutions throughout the city. Authorities have closed the market, where environmental samples have been taken for analysis.

6. Is it spreading?
It’s still early, but so far, it appears not. Authorities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore increased precautions at airports. Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection said it picked up 16 sick people who had recently traveled to Wuhan as of Jan. 6 but found no discernible link between these cases and the pneumonia cluster. (Most just had the flu.) A 3-year-old girl hospitalized in Singapore with pneumonia also turned out to be unrelated. The WHO has said it’s monitoring the situation and is standing by to respond if needed, but hasn’t recommended any special precautions for travelers.

8. Why the SARS link?
There are some, albeit narrow, parallels. Both emerged in China. In the case of SARS, it’s thought to have spread indirectly from a “wildlife reservoir,” believed to be bats, to humans via masked palm civets and other species in live-animal markets. The Wuhan outbreak has also been linked to a live-animal market, making it possible the infectious agent has an animal origin. Diseases transmissible from animals to humans, sometimes referred to as “zoonoses,” comprise a large percentage of all newly identified infectious diseases.

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