The New SARS-like Coronavirus — Should You Be Worried?

In 2003, a previously unknown virus began to spread across the world by air travellers, infecting thousands of people and affecting national economies. The virus caused a serious form of pneumonia and acute respiratory distress, as well as mass panic and fear. The new virus was officially identified in 2003 as the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV). The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak ended up causing around 8,000 cases and 750 deaths worldwide, and dramatically demonstrated both the frightening ease with which an infectious disease can spread across the globe, as well as the encouraging speed at which a connected global health system can respond to a new threat.

Fast-forward to today, and you may have seen the many recent media reports about a new SARS-like virus discovered in Saudi Arabia. So far, this new virus has killed five people out of a total of nine cases of severe respiratory infection — 5 cases in Saudi Arabia, 2 cases in Qatar, and 2 cases in Jordan. It has been identified as a new coronavirus, meaning it is genetically related to the SARS virus and thus, has caused some concern.

The Situation So Far

Scientists are working to figure out where this new virus came from, whether it is very contagious and whether it, too, will spread widely like the SARS virus did. So far, it is known that the new virus is different from other coronaviruses that have been found in humans before. It probably came from an animal and could be similar to coronaviruses found in bats.

Fortunately, there’s no need to panic!

Unlike the SARS virus, it currently seems unlikely that the novel coronavirus spreads easily from person to person. Also, the WHO and CDC have not issued any travel warnings thus far, so you don’t have to cancel any travel plans to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Jordan. However, if you have recently travelled to these countries and develop a fever, cough, and shortness of breath, it couldn’t hurt to see your healthcare provider.

The WHO headquarters and WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) are currently increasing epidemiological surveillance and strengthening sentinel surveillance systems for severe acute respiratory infections to ensure this new coronavirus is sufficiently monitored.

It seems unlikely that this new coronavirus will cause an outbreak and panic to the same extent as the 2003 SARS outbreak. Today, the global healthcare system is better prepared to deal with a mass outbreak of that kind. Scientists have already learned the new virus’s genetic code, and labs around the world are already equipped to diagnose it. Nine years after SARS, the world is now in a much better place to deal with an epidemic, should it occur at all.