WHO: Sick health workers were exposed to coronavirus patients

May 15, 2013 (CIDRAP News) – The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed today that two healthcare workers in Saudi Arabia who are sick with the novel coronavirus (nCoV) had been exposed to infected patients, marking the first time the virus apparently followed that pathway.

The two health workers, whose cases were first announced yesterday by the Saudi government, are a 45-year-old man in critical condition and a 43-year-old woman in stable condition, the WHO said.

The two cases increase the size of a hospital-centered nCoV cluster in the country to 21 illnesses, with 9 deaths, the WHO reported. Media reports have tied the cluster to the Al Moosa General Hospital in Hofuf, Eastern province.

"Although health care associated transmission has been observed before with nCoV (in Jordan in April 2012), this is the first time health care workers have been diagnosed with nCoV infection after exposure to patients," the WHO said. "Health care facilities that provide care for patients with suspected nCoV infection should take appropriate measures to decrease the risk of transmission of the virus to other patients and health care workers."

The infected male health worker got sick on May 2, and the woman fell ill on May 8, the agency said. It also noted that the woman has a coexisting health condition, but didn't say what it was.

The statement did not give any details about the two workers' roles, degree of contact with nCoV patients, use of infection prevention precautions, or whether they had contact with patients other than nCoV patients in the days before they fell ill.

Another hospital case cluster emerged recently in France, where a patient tested positive for nCoV after sharing a hospital room with the country's first case-patient in late April. News reports said a doctor and a nurse who had possible exposure to the first nCoV patient got sick and were tested for the virus, but only the roommate tested positive.

The WHO's count of nCoV cases stands at 40, with 20 deaths, the same numbers as reported in the media yesterday.

In other developments, a panel of experts published its formal recommendation that nCoV be known henceforward as "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). The recommendation from the Coronavirus Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses was first reported in a ScienceInsider news story on May 6.

So far the virus has been called by a variety of names. The study group, which includes researchers who discovered and characterized the virus, published its paper today in the Journal of Virology.

The proposed name "is endorsed by the discoverers of the virus and other researchers that pioneered MERS-CoV studies, by the World Health Organization and by the Saudi Ministry of Health," the article says. "We strongly recommend the use of this name in scientific and other publications."

Meanwhile, Arab News reported today that the Saudi government has hired US and Canadian experts to help battle the novel virus. The story didn't identify the experts.

And yesterday the Canadian Press reported that Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg has obtained a sample of nCoV and will use it to assess diagnostic tests being used in the country.

Frank Plummer, PhD, scientific director of the lab, said the sample was obtained from Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, which first identified the virus last June in a sample from a Saudi man who had died of a mysterious illness, the story said.

The Winnipeg lab has already made diagnostic tests by using the virus's genetic sequence, but having an actual isolate will enable scientists to start developing a serologic test to look for evidence of past infection with the virus, Plummer said.

See also:

May 15 WHO statement

May 15 J Virol article

May 6 CIDRAP News story noting recommended name for nCoV

May 15 Arab News story

May 14 Canadian Press story

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