A novel virus has appeared in Saudi Arabia on the eve of Hajj, a massive pilgrimage to one of the country’s major cities, causing concerns of increased transmission through the millions of expected visitors. The virus has been identified as a Coronavirus, part of the family of viruses which causes the common cold, but also was responsible for the 2003 outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), in which 8,422 people were infected and 916 died.
So far two Saudi men have died from the virus, which causes rapid kidney failure and is associated with respiratory symptoms. Officials do not believe that either man caught it from the other. A third man, a Qatari national, remains hospitalised in England. Five cases of the virus have also been identified in Denmark; all five remain in isolation.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been quick to allay fears of a new SARS-like epidemic. In a briefing on Tuesday 25 September, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl stated ”this is not SARS, it will not become SARS, it is not SARS-like.” Indeed, the virus appears to be minimally infectious; exposed hospital staff have shown little sign of illness, and overall cases remain few in number. Professor John Oxford, a virology expert at Queen Mary, University of London, commented to the BBC: “SARS was very quick off the mark infecting hospital staff etc. and this new virus does not to me appear to be in the same ‘big bang’ group.”
Despite its low infection rate, however, the virus has sparked trepidation due to its location and timing. In the next few weeks, 3 million pilgrims will flood Saudi Arabia, before spreading back across the world. This could accelerate the spread of the virus, particularly if it mutates to become more infectious.
Saudi authorities have enacted several measures to mitigate transmission during Hajj. These include a request for vaccination before visas are granted, and stringent hygiene instruction. Saudi Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah commented in an official statement that “The health condition of pilgrims is satisfactory. They are free from any kind of infectious diseases.”
As yet, the virus cannot be treated. Dr. Svend Stenvang Petersen, the chief physician treating the Dutch cases, told reporters: “We do not have any medicine that works against this virus.” A team of WHO experts, along with a team from Columbia University which includes Dr. Ian Lipkin (described in Discover magazine as “the world’s most celebrated virus hunter”) is currently in Riyadh at the invitation of the Saudi government, investigating the virus.
PHOTO CREDIT: Dr AJ Cann