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Scientists Identify Virus Possibly Responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - 2003-03-19

Scientists may be closer to finding a cause to a mysterious illness that first appeared in Asia. The World Health Organization says clues have been developed at three laboratories, but more work is needed. Five hundred cases are suspected and at least 10 people have died.

The World Health Organization says researchers in Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore have identified a virus that may be responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. They say the virus resembles microbes that cause measles, mumps, and canine distemper.

But the head of WHO's communicable diseases program, David Heymann, says it is premature to call this a breakthrough. He says it is promising, but more research needs to be done.

"There are clues now," said Mr. Heymann. "These clues will make it easier to diagnose patients and at the same time provide them better care and also help us begin the studies that we need to better understand this disease. Is it occurring in people that do not have symptoms. Are they being infected but not showing symptoms, for example."

The World Health Organization is sending an international team of experts to China. The team will examine data collected by the government since November when an epidemic of the flu-like illness broke out.

Dr. Heymann says no definite link has yet been established between the outbreaks in China and other countries in Southeast Asia. But he says there is a link in terms of geography and the time within which these epidemics have occurred. Dr. Heymann also says it now seems all but certain that the infection is not influenza, a viral infection of the respiratory passages.

"This outbreak that is going on with sources in Hong Kong and Vietnam does not appear to be influenza," he said. "But we know that the influenza virus was present three weeks ago in two people in Hong Kong. And these people have connections with China. So it is very important that now we begin this investigation at length in China because there is nothing that says there cannot be two outbreaks at the same time."

Dr. Heymann notes the disease would have spread much more rapidly in China than it has if it were influenza. He says while Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is an airborne disease, it is not very contagious. People have to be in very close contact to become infected.