Skip to main content

A SARS coronavirus is seen in this undated handout photograph released in London, Sept. 28, 2012.HANDOUT/Reuters

Public-health officials around the world have been alerted to be on the lookout for a new respiratory disease caused by a previously unknown coronavirus. This has raised fears that "the next SARS" has arrived.

So far, only two people, a 60-year-old man from Saudi Arabia and a 49-year-old man from Qatar who recently visited Saudi Arabia, are known to have been infected. The former died and the latter is recovering in a London hospital. So why is this pathogen getting so much attention?

What is this new virus?

It is a coronavirus, in the same family as the common cold and SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome). It does not yet have an official name, but British scientists have dubbed it "London1_novel CoV2012."

Why the concern if only two people have been infected?

When a novel pathogen arises – one that hasn't been seen in humans before – there is very little natural immunity, which means that, theoretically at least, it could spread very rapidly. Coronaviruses like this one attack the lungs, causing fever, cough and breathing difficulties.

Where did the new virus come from?

The source of the virus has not yet been identified. It could be an existing, innocuous coronavirus that mutated to become more dangerous or could have jumped from another species. London1_novel CoV2012 is genetically similar to bat coronaviruses, suggesting that it may have jumped to humans from bats. SARS was originally believed to have jumped from civets to humans in China, but there is some evidence it originated in bats.

How does this disease spread?

Coronaviruses generally spread in droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. In this case, however, there is no evidence that the virus can spread from human to human. The two men who have been identified with the disease seem to have contracted it separately, months apart.

Is this 'the next SARS'?

Despite the newspaper headlines, Gregory Hartl, spokesman for the World Health Organization, is pretty categorical: "This is not SARS, it will not become SARS, it is not SARS-like."

But the WHO is monitoring the new pathogen carefully, he added, because of the lesson learned from SARS, that a new coronavirus can spread quickly and be deadly. There are also fears the virus could mutate and spread more easily.

In fact, even before SARS hit, there were predictions that the next pandemic would be caused by a coronavirus. That is because coronaviruses evolve quickly and can jump species more readily than other viruses.

Is it dangerous to travel to Saudi Arabia?

This is a key question because the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that attracts millions of Muslims to Mecca, is fast approaching. So far, however, there are no travel restrictions and will likely not be any because there is no evidence of human-to-human spread.

Should we be worried in Canada?

In short, no. "If you're going to lose sleep over a virus, then worry about the seasonal flu," says Allison McGeer, professor in the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology and in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. "My advice is: Get a flu vaccine."

Whatever happened to SARS?

SARS caused a global panic in 2002-03, killing 774 people (including 44 in Canada) and sickening another 8,000. But public-health officials were able to contain its spread and treat the infected. Essentially, SARS has been eradicated even though a vaccine was never developed.