LONDON – Global health experts are following up a new respiratory virus that killed at least one person in Saudi Arabia, in the build-up to the annual hajj season, which lures millions of Muslims from around the globe to the holy lands.
"This is now an international issue," Gregory Hartl, spokesman of the World Health Organization (WHO), said, Reuters reported.
The WHO issued a global alert on Sunday after a Qatari man was infected of a virus related to the deadly SARS infection.
The Qatari man was rushed to intensive care in London after suffering kidney failure.
He first showed symptoms of an acute respiratory infection while he was in Qatar, the WHO said.
He spent some time in intensive care in Qatar and was later flown to Britain where he was currently in a London hospital's intensive care unit, being treated for acute respiratory infection and kidney failure.
"The (Qatari) patient is still alive but, as we understand, in critical condition," Hartl said.
The Qatari man had recently travelled to Saudi Arabia, where another man with an almost identical virus had already died.
"This new virus ... is different from any that have previously been identified in humans," the Britain’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) said.
SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, appeared in China in 2002 and infected more than 8,000 people worldwide, killing around 800 of them before being brought under control.
Any suggestions of a link between the virus and Saudi Arabia will cause particular concern in the build-up to annual Muslim hajj, which will start next month.
Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj consists of several ceremonies, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
No ‘Big Bang’
But health experts say it is still too far to estimate the potential threat of the virus.
"The important thing is to be aware of the virus and to be on the lookout for any evidence that it is more than a rare chance event," Andrew Easton, a virologist at Britain’s University of Warwick, told Reuters.
The virus, known as a coronavirus, comes from the same family as SARS which emerged in 2002 and killed 800 people.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that includes causes of the common cold but can also include more severe illness such as the virus responsible for SARS.
"SARS was very quick off the mark infecting hospital staff," John Oxford, a professor of Virology at Queen Mary, University of London, said in an emailed comment.
"And this new virus does not to me appear to be in the same 'big bang' group."
He said the new virus was "more likely to join numerous other members of the coronavirus family and behave like a nasty infection rather than join the exception group like SARS".
The WHO said it was in touch with health authorities in Britain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC.L).
"We're asking for information from whoever might have seen such cases, but as of the moment we haven't had any more notifications of cases," said Hartl.
The HPA said it had conducted lab testing on Qatari case and found a 99.5 percent match to a virus that killed a 60-year-old Saudi national earlier this year.
The Saudi man's virus was not identified as a new kind of infection at the time of his death.
There was no evidence of ongoing transmission, said the head of the HPA's respiratory diseases department, John Watson."In the light of the severity of the illness that has been identified in the two confirmed cases, immediate steps have been taken to ensure that people who have been in contact with the UK case have not been infected, and there is no evidence to suggest they have," he said.