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New SARS virus put scientists on alert

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Posted February 20, 2013
Lung tissue. The red colour shows the cells, while the green colour shows the virus. When treated with interferons the virus disappears completely (IFN-alpha og IFN-lamda) (figure: Volker Thiel)

Lung tissue. The red colour shows the cells, while the green colour shows the virus. When treated with interferons the virus disappears completely (IFN-alpha og IFN-lamda) (figure: Volker Thiel)

A new SARS-like virus has been found in the Middle East, and an international team of researchers with Danish participation has found that the new virus is growing just as fast as a cold virus, and the disease is more severe. The disease could potentially be cured with a treatment that stimulates the immune system.

A new SARS-like virus has emerged in the Middle East, more people have died and many are hospitalised with serious respiratory infections. The virus is a so-called corona virus, which is similar to a conventional influenza virus but is much more serious. The key question now is whether the virus will spread to the whole world, just as we saw in 2003, when about 8,000 people became ill and 800 died.

At that time the virus originally came from an animal, and it was then transferred to humans. The same seems to be the case this time because everything indicates that the virus originates from a bat.

Fast-growing virus

The new SARS-like virus is a new type of corona virus called HCoV-EMC. This virus is related to the SARS corona virus, but in addition to the common symptoms for virus, the patients also get kidney failure and severe pneumonia. Among the nine confirmed cases, the mortality rate is around 50%, in contrast to the first SARS virus where the mortality rate was around 10%.

So far there have been so few clinical cases of the new type of virus that it is difficult to know how great the risk is that one person transmits the disease to another. That is why the international research team with Danish participation decided to try to find an answer to this.

The researchers used a newly developed laboratory system where artificial lung tissue is infected with the virus, and then they measured how fast the virus grows. These results showed that the human cells are susceptible to the HCoV-EMC, and are easily infected. HCoV-EMC virus in the laboratory system spreads as fast as a common cold infection.

The disease can be treated with interferons

The aim of this research was also to find treatment options, so we are prepared if the disease develops into an epidemic. The good news is that the virus can be treated with interferons, which are proteins that stimulate the immune system. Interferons are normally released from the host cells in response to an infection. This treatment also proved to be beneficial in combination with other viral diseases.

So even though the rate for spreading the disease among humans is still unknown, and the virus so far is limited to the Middle East, the health authorities around the world take no chances and keep a watchful eye on how the disease spreads. Unfortunately, respiratory viruses are known to mutate and adapt, whereby they can easily spread to humans. This means that they develop into epidemics, as we saw with the first SARS virus.

Source: Aarhus University

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