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New Mysterious Viral Outbreak in Central China Evokes Fears of SARS

Chinese woman with medical mask on
A new viral outbreak in China is evoking fears of the 2002 SARS outbreak that killed hundreds. (Photo: PxHere)

“We learned a bitter lesson in 2003, and we do not want that to happen again.“

A new illness is making its rounds in China and while it has caused no known deaths, memories of SARS virus are causing officials to treat the outbreak with increased seriousness as they work to identify its origins.

The viral strain is a type of coronavirus – a subclass of virus that is typically not dangerous. Coronavirus is most often associated with infections of the nose, sinuses, and throat. The new outbreak has caused pneumonia in 59 patients as of Sunday, the city of Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported. 

The virus bears a strong resemblance to the infamous SARS virus that spread rapidly across the globe in 2002. SARS killed 774 patients, according to the World Health Organization. Symptoms of the new virus include fever and “invasion lesions of both lungs,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Some patients have also experienced trouble with breathing.

While on the surface, the virus seems similar to SARS, it has thus far been less severe with no reported deaths as of Thursday. However Chinese authorities and medical groups have reacted quickly in an effort to both prevent further spread of the virus and to determine its root cause. Memories of the SARS outbreak have provoked urgency.

“We learned a bitter lesson in 2003, and we do not want that to happen again,“ Alex Lam, chairman of Patients’ Voices, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group, told the Wall Street Journal. “China should immediately release their findings so doctors across the world can better know how to tackle this illness.”

Patients believed to be suffering from the new virus were immediately quarantined and anyone who came into contact with them were also placed under medical observation. Punishments were also levied on people who spread false information online, possibly inducing panic of a SARS resurgence, according to AFP. 

Initial findings indicated the as-of-yet unnamed virus is transmitted not from person-to-person like SARS, but rather animal-to-person. 

“It sounds to me like it’s something that’s jumped from animals to humans, and it’s in early stages,” said Ralph Baric, virus researcher at the University of North Carolina, in an interview with STAT. “And right now it’s virus evolution versus public health control measures to try to prevent spread.”

This hypothesis seems to be confirmed by the lack of infection among medical personnel, something that would normally be expected if the virus spread person-to-person.

A statement from the Wuhan commission also confirmed the virus is not related to regular and avian influenzas, MERS, SARS, or adenoviruses. Chinese authorities speculated the virus could have originated at the South China Seafood Wholesale Market. In response, China shut down the center and implemented decontamination protocols. 

It is important to note that the market sells not only fish, but also livestock for slaughter. Consequently, it is undetermined whether the virus originated with fish or a variety of meat. Furthermore, there have been no reported cases outside of China, but global health experts are keen to keep it that way. 

To that end, Baric has called upon Beijing to release more details about the affected patients, their ages in particular. 

“If they are all 65-year-olds, then that starts screaming ‘coronavirus’ to me,” Baric told STAT. With more information on confirmed cases, doctors can build a case definition by which they can judge future potential cases. One of the more recent cases involves a 3-year-old girl.

Viruses evolve over time in order to survive, so while the new virus is not yet transmitted from person-to-person, it could gain that ability. SARS, for example, began with bats and made its way to humans through civet cats. 

At this point, the situation is still unfolding, but Beijing hopes to preempt a repeat of 2002. After the SARS outbreak, The WHO chastised China for downplaying the scale and severity of the virus.

Locating the initial carrier of the virus is paramount to preventing its further spread, but aside from closing the Wuhan market where a number of the infected patients worked, China has not yet revealed any indication that it has pinpointed the culprit. 

Daniel Davis

Daniel Davis is Managing Editor for The Osage County Herald-Chronicle in Kansas and also covers International news for Inside Over, a Milan-based global affairs publication. He graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Outside of writing, he enjoys photography and one day hopes to return to video production. Learn more about him at his website danieldavis.la.

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