Two People Dead From SARS-Like Virus In Saudi Arabia, Two More Infected In France

While the H7N9 birdflu epidemic is still raging in China, with 4 news deaths bringing the total confirmed death toll to 31 (and who knows how many unconfirmed) on 129 infections leading to a mortality rate that is simply staggering, even if the mordibity rate is largely a function of Chinese data censorship, Europe and the middle east may be set for a viral breakout of their own.

First is the case of Saudi Arabia, where two more people have died from novel coronavirus, a new strain of the virus similar to the one that caused SARS, in an outbreak in al-Ahsa region of Saudi Arabia, the deputy health minister for public health said on Sunday. Ziad Memish said that in the latest cluster of infections, 15 cases had been confirmed, and nine of those patients had died.

As a reminder, the slow burning threat of a viral epidemic in Saudi Arabia is not new. It was back in September that the WSJ wrote about a "Mysterious Virus" that had emerged in the Middle East.

"Global health authorities are hunting for cases of a mysterious viral respiratory illness that killed at least one person in Saudi Arabia and left another who traveled there in intensive care in a U.K. hospital. Health officials said the source of the virus infecting both is unknown, though they have identified it as a coronavirus, part of a large family of viruses that in most cases cause common colds, but also have caused SARS. With no indication yet whether the new virus is like SARS, which spread from person to person, officials are tracking this new virus closely."

Some eight months later it seems the neither the epidemic, nor the source, or host, have been identified. As to what the real state of affairs in the Kingdom is, like in China, one must rely on the local media for truthful reporting - something which as Fukushima taught everyone, can be a bitter pill to swallow for some, or most, governments.

What is more troubling is that with the lack of accurate newsflow out of Saudi Arabia, come unforeseen consequences, such as the eventual spread of the virus from its localized region to a new area, such as Europe or in this case France, to start.

Reuters report that a "second diagnosis of the new SARS-like coronavirus has been confirmed in France, the Health Ministry said on Sunday, in what appeared to be a case of human-to-human transmission. The new infection was found in a 50-year-old man who had shared a hospital room with France's only other known sufferer, the ministry said in a statement."

More from Reuters:

Health experts are concerned about clusters of the new coronavirus strain, nCoV, which was first spotted in the Gulf and has spread to France, Britain and Germany.


There has so far been little evidence of direct and sustained human-to-human transmission of nCoV - in contrast to the pattern seen in the related Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, which killed 775 people in 2003.


The first nCoV case in France, confirmed on May 8, is a 65-year-old man who fell ill after returning from Dubai late last month.


Both French patients are in hospital in the northern city of Lille, where the younger man was transferred to intensive care on Sunday as his breathing deteriorated.


His case suggests that airborne transmission of the virus is possible, though still unusual, said Professor Benoit Guery, head of the Lille hospital's infectious diseases unit.

Not unexpectedly, the government's first response is the usual one: don't panic.

"Fortunately, this remains a virus that is not easily transmitted," Guery told the BFMTV channel. "I don't think the public should be concerned - it has been out there for a year and we have 34 cases globally."


He said the second French case had occurred because the first patient presented "quite atypical" symptoms and had not been isolated immediately.

If this sounds suspiciously familiar to what the Chinese authorities said in 2003 when placating the population before the first SARS breakout became a pandemic infecting over 8000 and killing nearly 800, it's because it is.

As for the current nCoV or whatever it ends up being branded, breakout, the actual R0 and epidemic details are largely irrelevant, especially in the beginning: all that needs to happen is for several reported cases to be announced in France, and elsewhere in Europe, for the fear of the worst case scenario to bring society to a halt, if a temporary one.

Because if anyone the European authorities have shown beyond a reasonable doubt, and in fact have said so on paper, is that when it becomes serious, you have to lie.

Logically, the question on everyone's mind now will be how soon until it becomes serious?

* * *

And sure enough, moments ago the World Health Organization chimed in, confirming it was on the edge of becoming quite serious. From the WHO twitter account:

  • Novel coronavirus is a new infection and there are also many gaps in our knowledge that will inevitably take time to fill in. #nCoV
  • Novel coronavirus is caused by a virus from coronaviruses group. Another from the group is SARS, however #nCoV is NOT SARS
  • Novel coronavirus: We don’t know where this virus lives. We don’t know how often people might develop mild disease. We aren't sure why #nCoV
  • Things we also don't understand re: novel coronavirus: How are people getting infected? From animals? Contaminated surfaces? People? #nCoV
  • Novel coronavirus clusters seen in countries increasingly support the hypothesis that the virus can transmit H2H with close contacts #nCoV
  • Novel coronavirus person-to-person transmission has remained limited to some small clusters so far #nCoV
  • Novel coronavirus: Countries need to increase surveillance, as well as awareness among all people, particularly health care workers #nCoV
  • Novel coronavirus: Critical for countries to report cases, related info urgently to WHO as required by the Intl Health Regulations #nCoV

Lots of unknowns. Here is what is known: