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Egyptian Virologist Who Discovered New SARS-Like Virus Fears Its Spread

posted 13 May 2013, 09:13 by Mpelembe   [ updated 13 May 2013, 09:14 ]

An Egyptian doctor, whose discovery of a deadly new SARS-like virus cost him his job in Saudi Arabia, says he fears it could spread as new research shows it can transmitted amongst humans.

CAIROEGYPT (MAY 12, 2013) (REUTERS) - The Egyptian doctor who discovered a new SARS-like disease has said he fears the virus could spread outside Gulf Arab countries via travellers and migrant workers.

The new coronavirus (nCoV), which is from the same family that caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, has killed at least 18 people in the Middle East and Europe since it was diagnosed last year.

On Sunday (May 12), the World Health Organisation said it seemed likely the virus could be passed between humans, but only after prolonged contact.

Ali Mohamed Zaki, an Egyptian virologist who diagnosed the disease in Saudi Arabia last year, also said it looked like the virus was mutating to spread more easily, citing the fact that no one in his hospital had caught the disease during the first case.

Speaking at his clinic in Cairo's Heliopolis neighbourhood, Dr. Zaki said that the virus's presence in the Arabian Gulf posed particular dangers for its possible spread.

A total of 34 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed worldwide by blood tests, with the largest cluster of infections in Saudi Arabia, home to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which draw millions of pilgrims a year.

"The problem is that it's in the [Arabian] Gulf area. Because in the Gulf area there are many workers and many persons who visit the Gulf area and go back to their country, so the spread will be possible if the virus becomes adapted to transmission from man to man, the spread will be possible," he said.

Zaki also said it was still unclear whether the virus would become deadlier as it moved more easily between people but said authorities should prepare for the worst case scenario and apply standard infection controls like isolating patients.

Dr. Zaki said the high mortality rate is particularly worrying, but that the data needs to be carefully analysed.

"There is about, till now, 30 cases with about 18 deaths. You can calculate it, it's nearly about 60 percent. The fatality is about 60 percent but there may be many cases asymptomatic or mild which need investigation by serological techniques," he said.

An outbreak of SARS in 2003 killed 775 people as it swept across the world after emerging in Asia.

But Dr. Zaki said doctors and authorities are in a better position to deal with an outbreak than they were with SARS because this virus had been identified relatively early, prior to the outbreak of an epidemic.

"We are in a better situation now than in SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome]. We have a diagnostic tool in our hand, we have, I think everything is ready and some people are working on the antiviral treatment, but, as I told you, the main thing is infection control. And I think we are in a better situation than before, than with the SARS," he said.

Zaki first encountered the coronavirus in JeddahSaudi Arabia in mid-June when a 60-year-old Saudi Arabian man was admitted with coughing, fever and severe chest symptoms to the hospital where he was working.

He and the Saudi Arabian Health Ministry tested the patient's sputum and blood samples for diseases including influenza, H1N1 and swine flu, all of which were negative.

Zaki then sent samples to a laboratory in the Netherlands and, while waiting for the results, ran another test for the coronavirus family, which came up positive.

In September, Zaki posted his findings on ProMED, a website used by doctors to monitor diseases, which alerted doctors in London who had a patient with similar symptoms.

Dr. Zaki has said that he was terminated from his job in Saudi Arabia because of his decision to make the virus public.

By last September he had returned to Egypt, where he now has a post at Ain Shams University.

But Dr. Zaki stands by his decision, and says his research has made Saudi Arabiaand the Gulf safer.

"This diagnosis has a very good impact on every Saudi citizen. Now there is a diagnostic tool, anyone can be diagnosed by laboratorial method, they can be protected. As I told you if there is infection control measures, the number of cases will be minimal, the number of morbidity will be minimal. And I think it's a very good impact on every Saudi, on everyone in the Gulf and even all over the globe. Some of the scientists sent me an email, he told me that, 'you did, Dr. Ali you did a favour for the globe.' I lost actually my job at Saudi Arabia but it's nothing for me compared to the benefit of everyone," he said.

Zaki has declined to predict how long it would take for the virus to mutate to a more transmissible form, but said it might behave like SARS, which took months to reach that stage.