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WHO Believes Scientists Close to Finding SARS Virus - 2003-04-12


The World Health Organization says it believes scientists are very close to finding the virus causing the mysterious flu-like illness, known as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The latest WHO figures put the number of SARS cases in 17 countries at nearly 2,800. It says 111 people have died.

Seventeen laboratories in nine countries have been searching for the virus that causes SARS. A scientist of the World Health Organization, Mark Salter, said the laboratories have whittled the search down to one probable candidate, a previously unrecognized coronavirus, a virus that ordinarily causes common colds. "As and when we have definitive evidence to suggest the coronavirus is the primary causative agent, the next step everybody will be anticipating is the development of a vaccine. Discussions are currently ongoing within the laboratories as to how this can be taken forward, and as and when information becomes available, the world will be aware of that," he said.

WHO researchers say a number of different tests designed to look either for the coronavirus or antibodies to the virus are currently being evaluated. The researchers say, as soon as the most appropriate diagnostic tests are developed, they will be made widely available.

The head of WHO's communicable disease program, David Heymann, says researchers still do not know whether SARS will become endemic, like tuberculosis or malaria, or whether it will be driven back into nature. "Our hope on [March 15] was that we could get the alert out, and that the disease would be stopped and not spread, and be contained, and disappear, and not become a regular part of human disease," he said. "So, therefore if this succeeds, there would be no need for a vaccine or drug. If it does not succeed, there would be a need."

WHO says it might take between six months and a year to develop a vaccine against SARS.

On March 15, the World Health Organization issued a travel advisory recommending that people delay trips to Hong Kong and Guongdong province in China. Both areas are most severely affected by SARS. Since then, many airports around the world have begun screening passengers for symptoms of the disease. These include coughing, high fever and shortness of breath.

Dr. Heymann says he believes the alert has effectively stopped the spread of the disease to new areas.