LONDON (AP) - The World Health Organization said Monday it is too soon to say whether there could be an outbreak of a SARS-like killer respiratory disease after health officials in Britain announced they detected a related virus in a severely ill patient from the Middle East.
British officials alerted WHO on Saturday of the new virus in a man transferred from Qatar for treatment in London. He had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia, where another man died of a similar illness earlier this year.
The man in the new case was sickened by a coronavirus, from a family of viruses which causes most common colds but also includes the virus that causes SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. In 2003, SARS killed some 800 people, mostly in Asia, in a short-lived epidemic.
"It's still very early days," said Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman. "At the moment we have two sporadic cases and there are still a lot of holes to be filled in." Hartl said it was unclear how the virus is spread and there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.
Coronaviruses are typically spread in the air but Hartl said scientists were considering the possibility that patients were infected directly by animals. "All possible avenues of infection are being explored right now," he said.
So far there is no connection between the cases except for a history of travel in Saudi Arabia. SARS was first spread to humans from civet cats in China.
Hartl said no other countries have so far reported any similar cases to WHO.
Other experts said it was unclear how dangerous the virus is. "We don't know if this is going to turn into another SARS or if it will disappear into nothing," said Michael Osterholm, a flu expert at the University of Minnesota. He said it was crucial to determine the ratio of severe to mild cases.
SARS hit more than 30 countries worldwide after spreading from Hong Kong. Osterholm said it was worrying that at least one person with the disease had died. "You don't die from the common cold," he said. "This gives us reason to think it might be more like SARS," which killed about 10 percent of the people it infected.
Britain's Health Protection Agency and the World Health Organization said in statements that the 49-year-old Qatari national became ill on Sept. 3, having previously traveled to Saudi Arabia. He was transferred from Qatar to Britain on Sept. 11 and is being treated in an intensive care unit at a London hospital for problems including kidney failure. Respiratory viruses aren't usually known to cause serious kidney problems.
The Health Protection Agency said it was unaware of any ties the patient had to Britain and that he likely was in a private clinic in the Middle East before being transferred to the London hospital. It said none of the health workers involved in his treatment had fallen ill.
WHO said virus samples from the patient are almost identical to those of a 60-year-old Saudi national who died earlier this year. The agency isn't currently recommending travel restrictions and said the source of infection remains unknown.
Saudi officials said they were concerned the upcoming Hajj pilgrimage next month could provide more opportunities for the virus to spread and advised pilgrims to keep their hands clean and wear masks in crowded places. The Hajj has previously sparked outbreaks of diseases including flu, meningitis and polio.