Doctors on worldwide alert over ‘Sars II’

Global health officials have alerted doctors to be on the lookout for a virus related to Sars but said there were no signs the disease was behaving like the respiratory syndrome that killed hundreds in 2003.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced this week a new coronavirus had been found in a critically ill Qatari man who was being treated in London, as well as in a Saudi Arabian man who died several months earlier. Genetic sequencing found the viruses in the two men to be nearly identical.

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The two might have been infected directly by animals, however, and there was no proof of human-to-human spread of the virus, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said yesterday. “This is not Sars – it is a new virus and very distinct from Sars,” he said. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions, so we cannot predict what might happen.”

The new coronavirus is from a family of viruses that cause the common cold as well as Sars, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed about 800 people, mostly in Asia. Sars jumped to people from civet cats, then mutated into a form easily spread among humans.

Unlike Sars, the new virus also causes rapid kidney failure, a complication not usually seen in respiratory viruses. In London, the Qatari patient is in a critical but stable condition and is on an artificial lung machine.