New coronavirus confirmed as SARS pathogen

Apr 16, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – A previously unrecognized coronavirus that has been regarded for 3 weeks as the likely cause of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has been confirmed as the pathogen, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced today.

Investigators at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, completed the research to fulfill Koch's postulates, the four conditions for proving disease causation, WHO officials said. The WHO announcement gave no details on the conclusive research, but reports elsewhere said investigators infected monkeys with the coronavirus and observed that they developed an illness that looked like SARS.

In the WHO announcement, Dr. Albert Osterhaus, director of virology at Erasmus Medical Center, said, "Today, the first part of the mission of our network [of laboratories investigating SARS] has been fulfilled, as researchers have both detected a hitherto unknown virus and established it as the cause of SARS. The new coronavirus has been named by WHO and member laboratories as 'SARS virus.'"

WHO officials credited close collaboration among 13 laboratories in 10 countries for the rapid identification of the pathogen. "Now we can move away from methods like isolation and quarantines and move aggressively towards modern intervention strategies including specific treatments and eventually vaccination," said Dr. David Heymann, executive director of WHO's communicable diseases program. "With the establishment of the causative agent, we are one crucial step closer."

Two Chinese laboratories recently joined the group of labs working on SARS, WHO announced. Besides China, the labs are in Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Representatives of the labs were to meet at WHO in Geneva and by telephone conference today to review what is known about the SARS virus.

In recent days health officials had been increasingly confident that the new coronavirus causes SARS, but until now the virus had not been shown to reproduce the disease in an animal host. As explained in the WHO announcement, Koch's postulates state that to be confirmed as the cause of a disease, an organism must be found in all cases of the disease, it must be isolated from the host and grown in pure culture, it must reproduce the disease when introduced into a susceptible host, and it must be found in that infected host.

The WHO announcement came on the heels of reports that two labs had completely sequenced the new coronavirus's genome. The British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver announced completion of the sequencing Apr 12, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported similar results Monday, Apr 14. The genetic data are expected to hasten the development of drugs and vaccines for SARS.

Today WHO reported 58 new cases of SARS, for a cumulative total of 3,293 cases with 159 deaths. The new cases included 36 in Hong Kong, 14 elsewhere in China, 4 in Taiwan, 3 in Canada, and 1 in Malaysia.

See also:

WHO news release

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