A mystery respiratory illness in a Chinese city could be caused by a new virus from the same family as Sars, experts have said.
A new member of the coronavirus family – which includes viruses behind the common cold to far more severe respiratory illnesses – could be responsible for the infection, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
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Both Sars – which killed nearly 800 people in China almost two decades ago – and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) are also caused by coronaviruses, although Chinese health authorities have said neither are behind the Wuhan outbreak.
The WHO said ”a novel coronavirus could not be ruled out”, although it needed more comprehensive information to confirm precisely the type of pathogen involved.
The United Nations health agency said that according to Chinese authorities, the virus behind the Wuhan cases can cause severe illness in some patients and does not appear to pass easily from person to person.
Fifty-nine people are being treated for the mystery strain of pneumonia, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said on Sunday. Seven were in critical condition.
Most cases of the illness have been linked to a seafood market in the city in central China.
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The country’s Xinhua news agency said preliminary lab results conducted by a team of experts showed a new type of coronavirus is behind the outbreak, the first cases of which were reported in December.
“It may take years for researchers to develop medicines and vaccines,” the agency said.
The WHO noted that coronaviruses emerge periodically, including in 2002 to cause Sars and in 2012 to cause Mers.
Over 8,000 fell ill from Sars in China during that outbreak, which was initially covered up by authorities before a growing death toll and rumours forced the government to reveal the epidemic.
Additional reporting by agencies