A team from Boston Children’s Hospital is tracking reported cases of a new virus identified this week as being from the same family of viruses that cause common colds and serious acute respiratory syndrome, the infection better known as SARS that killed hundreds around the world in a 2003 outbreak.
So far, there have been three reported cases of the new coronavirus, according to a statement from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health. Two people there died of the infection. A 49-year-old man who had recently been to Saudi Arabia was admitted to a Qatari intensive care unit in early September then airlifted for care in the United Kingdom, according to the World Health Organization.
Researchers at HealthMap in Boston mine the Internet, disease databases, and information submitted through a disease tracking mobile app for reports of new infections and outbreaks and then map them, showing patterns around the globe. The new virus first showed up in their surveillance on Sept. 20, through a tracking system run by the International Society for Infectious Diseases, said HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein.
News reports have frequently described the virus as “SARS-like.” Brownstein said the comparison may be an overstatement. The virus has not demonstrated itself to be as infectious as SARS, which has not been seen since 2004.
“For now, I think it’s just more of a wait-and-see situation,” Brownstein said. “There’s no reason to sound any major alarm bells just yet.”
But tracking the rate of infection and deaths will be important, particularly as millions of people meet in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at the end of October for the Hajj, a yearly Muslim pilgrimage.
The gathering is one of the largest in the world, and Brownstein’s group is on alert for disease outbreaks there each year. It maintains a map of pilgrims’ travel patterns and infections in the countries from which most originate.
By the time SARS had become a focus of public health officials around the world, it had proven far more deadly. The U.K. Health Protection Agency issued a statement Sunday saying early inquiries had found no illness in people who had contact with two of the patients who had the new virus.
“There’s definitely that sensitivity there that this might be the tip of the iceberg,” Brownstein said. “We still have to remain cautious.”