A new SARS-like virus claimed its sixth victim today, raising further concern about an outbreak that emerged last year in the Middle East. But new research suggests that the pathogen — while well-adapted to infecting humans — may be treatable. The death of an English man being treated in a Birmingham hospital may be commanding Tuesday's headlines, but that grim development is counterbalanced by the publication of a somewhat reassuring new study on the novel coronavirus (the same family of pathogens that gave us the SARS virus, which killed nearly 800 people in 2002 and 2003). There's no reason to panic over the new bug, but there is cause for healthy amounts of concern. Here's what we currently know about the novel coronavirus, with the bad news first and the good news saved for later.
The Bad News
Twelve confirmed cases; six deaths
Since a Saudi Arabian man first contracted and died from the virus in September 2012, eleven other cases of infection have been confirmed. That index patient flew from Qatar to England before getting treatment, and the history of this outbreak so far has been contained roughly within his path between the Middle East and the UK. Six out of 12 deaths is a high mortality rate, especially when compared with the 20 percent likelihood of SARS turning fatal. However, the latest victim was also suffering from a "long-term, complex unrelated health problem" according to hospital officials, and the sample size is currently too small to draw any conclusions about the lethality of this new bug.
It's good at infecting humans
According to a study released today, this novel coronavirus can penetrate the lining of lung passageways as easily as the common cold viruses. Swiss immunologist Volker Thiel and his colleagues tested the new coronavirus in bronchial cell cultures, finding that it's well equipped to infect humans. That finding follows revelations that the second confirmed patient to contract the virus may have passed it on to his son, suggesting the possibility of human-to-human transmission. The UK's Health Protection Agency (HPA) has said that it's "overwhelmingly likely" that people can swap the virus between each other. We don't yet know where the virus originated or why it just recently started infecting humans, but researchers suspect it comes from animals (bats, the likely reservoir hosts in the SARS pandemic, are a prime suspect).
Confusion over what to call it
It might sound silly to complain about nomenclature while people are dying, but not having a fixed, catchy name is seriously affecting the way information spreads about this virus. Researchers have to go hashtag crazy to keep track of the developments on social media. Thiel's research team classifies it as "HCoV-EMC," which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. The HPA is going with "novel coronavirus," which seems like bad foresight (what will they call the next coronavirus to spill over? "Novel novel coronavirus"?). Reuters thinks "NCoV" makes for a nice, spiffy abbreviation while Associated Press prefers the scarier appellation "mysterious SARS-like virus." Admittedly, those are all improvements on the official name used in early reports, "London1_novel CoV 2012." Someone needs to come up with a simple, pronounceable name for this thing so that reporters and public health officials can more easily disseminate information about it, as this Twitter exchange with a BBC health correspondent illustrates:
@janedreaper one for the pedants; coronavirus is the name of a whole family of viruses. I presume this is Novel coronavirus 2012?— David (@PaedsSHO) February 19, 2013
It looks treatable
Thiel and his co-researchers found that the new coronavirus may be good at infecting humans, but they also found that humans might be good at fighting back with a little medical help. Their experiments show that the spread of HCoV-EMC in human cells can be slowed by treatment with lambda-type interferons, proteins that boost the body's natural immune response to viral infections.
It's much better contained than SARS was
In the early months of the late-2002 SARS outbreak, the virus spread from China to 12 other countries, infecting 1,622 people and killing 58. Then, another outbreak struck Hong Kong in early 2003, causing the virus to spur on a pandemic in over 30 countries. In comparison, the outbreak of novel coronavirus has been limited to the UK, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar. And World Health Organization officials say this small-scale outbreak doesn't necessitate any special airport screening procedures or travel restrictions. University of Reading professor Ian Jones concurs telling the BBC's James Gallagher, "Although it is severe, it's not doing anything worse than some other respiratory infections, it's just a new one."
Inset image: e_monk via Flickr