- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2003

WASHINGTON, April 16 (UPI) — World Health Organization officials said Wednesday they now are certain a new virus never before seen in humans is the cause of the global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

To date, SARS has infected 3,293 people worldwide and killed 159.

"Because of an extraordinary collaboration among laboratories from countries around the world, we now know with certainty what causes SARS," Dr. David Heymann, executive director of WHO's communicable diseases programs, said in a written statement.

The culprit is a new member of the coronavirus family, which includes several viruses that infect humans and animals. Health officials have suspected this new virus was the cause of SARS for weeks because it had been detected in several ill patients, but it had not conclusively been shown to cause the symptoms of the illness.

To confirm whether the new virus, which is being called SARS virus, was indeed the cause of the illness, scientists at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, infected monkeys with the pathogen. They found the virus caused similar symptoms —cough, fever, breathing difficulty — in the monkeys that has been seen in humans with SARS, providing strong scientific evidence the pathogen is the causative agent.

"Today … researchers have both detected a hitherto unknown virus and established it as the cause of SARS," Erasmus' director of virology, Dr. Albert Osterhaus, who led the research to conclusively show the new virus caused SARS, said in a written statement.

The identification of the virus as the cause of the illness will enable researchers to focus more attention on developing tests for diagnosing those infected and treatments to prevent the disease.

"Now we can move away from methods like isolation and quarantines and move aggressively towards modern intervention strategies including specific treatments and eventually vaccination," Heymann said. "With the establishment of the causative agent, we are a crucial step closer."

The largest number of new cases continued to occur in China and Hong Kong on Wednesday. China, which has the largest number of people infected with SARS, reported 14 new infections bringing its total to 1,432 cases and 64 deaths.

Hong Kong increased its tally by 36 cases and five deaths, bringing its total to 1,268 people infected and 61 deaths.

Taiwan saw four new cases, Canada three and Malaysia one.

The unprecedented speed with which the causative agent of SARS was identified — just over a month since health officials first became aware of the new illness — was made possible by an international collaboration of 13 laboratories in 10 countries.

These included labs in China, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Earlier this week, U.S. officials said they had decoded the entire genome of the SARS virus. This information will be critical to developing treatments against the illness.

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