Attempts to track and neuter the deadly coronavirus have led to calls for a coordinated international investigation by scientists to find solutions.
First discovered in Saudia Arabia in September last year by the World Health Organization (WHO) — who called it novel coronavirus or NCoV — the strain has never been seen in humans before.
Related to the family of viruses that cause the common cold and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or (SARS), the coronavirus has already killed seven of the 13 people it is known to have infected worldwide. Of these, six have been geo-linked to Saudi Arabia, two in Jordan, and others in Britain and Germany.
In response to the emergency, scientists are being urged to coordinate their efforts to analyze the virus’ potential. Although experts have gathered huge amounts of data about the coronavirus, there is still a lot more to understand.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a professor at the University of Minnesota, told Reuters:
“What we know really concerns me, but what we don’t know really scares me.”
Less than a week after identifying NCov in a Qatari patient at a London hospital last year, scientists at Britain’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) sequenced part of its genome and mapped out a so-called “phylogenetic tree” — akin to family tree — of its links.
In addition, scientific teams in Switzerland, Germany, Japan and elsewhere learned that NCoV may be treatable by medicines similar to the ones used for SARS, which emerged in China in 2002 and killed a tenth of the 8,000 people it infected in 2003.
“Partly because of the way the field has developed post-SARS, we’ve been able to get onto this virus very early,” says Mike Skinner, a coronavirus expert from Imperial College London. “We know what it looks like, we know what family it’s from and we have its complete gene sequence.”
But Wendy Barclay, a flu virologist, also at Imperial College London, says there is a still a long way to go before definitive information about the virus’ MO is know.
“At the moment we just don’t know whether the virus might actually be quite widespread and it’s just a tiny proportion of people who get really sick, or whether it’s a brand new virus carrying a much greater virulence potential,” said Barclay.
Scientists in affected countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan are being asked to study the spread of the virus and document the symptoms. This would help establish whether the 13 cases seen so far are the most severe and represent “the tip the iceberg”, said Volker Thiel of the Institute of Immunobiology at Kantonal Hospital in Switzerland.
Likewise, Thiel says scientists in the Middle East and Arab Peninsular also need to collaborate with colleagues in Europe, where some NCoV cases have been treated and samples have been sent to specialist laboratories to try and locate the virus’ source.
Scientists have also been analyzing how the coronavirus is transmitted. The HPA, which helped identify the virus in the Qatari patient in 2012, believes the virus may be spread through bat droppings or water emissions from sneezes and coughs.
According to BBC News, viruses are able to jump from animals to humans and mutate in the process. Known examples include the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS and the H1N1 swine flu which caused a pandemic in 2009 and 2010.
However, work by a research team at the Robert Koch Institute at Germany’s University of Bonn suggests the coronavirus may come from goats. In a case study of a Qatar patient who was infected with NCoV and treated in Germany, researchers said the man reported owning a camel and a goat farm on which several goats had been ill with fevers before he fell sick, Reuters notes.
If this theory is correct, scientists think it would mean the recent infections are just occasional cross-overs from animals — a little like the sporadic cases of bird flu that occasionally pop up — and would suggest the virus has not yet gained a foothold in humans.
However, recent evidence from a case study of one family in the UK suggests NCoV can be passed from person to person and may not always come from an animal source. The British man who was infected had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Two more cases of virus infection affected members of the same family who had no recent travel history in the Middle East.
The WHO says the new cases show the virus is “persistent” and HPA scientists say the results of studying the British family provided “strong evidence” that NCoV can pass from one human to another “in at least some circumstances.”
Bloomberg reports that at a American Society for Microbiology Biodefense conference in Washington today, Alison Bermingham, from the UK’s HPA said:
“Are we looking at the tip of the iceberg, or are we making mountains out of molehills?”
The search for answers continues.