NIH scientists attempt to understand deadly new coronavirus

Scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health are attempting to find out more about a lethal new coronavirus and determine if it will become a pandemic or stay a limited threat.

Vincent Munster, a representative of the NIH’s Virus Ecology Unit, attended the annual meeting of the Biodefense and Emerging Diseases sector of the American Society of Microbiology on Wednesday. Munster said the new virus is most closely related to coronaviruses carried by bats, but none of the people who got the disease had direct contact with bats, Science News reports.

The virus, which is related to the virus that causes severe acute respiratory disease, sickened 13 people and killed seven of them since last April in England and the Middle East. All but one of the infected were hospitalized with severe pneumonia. Several of the victims experienced kidney failure.

“We have a new and virulent virus,” Gwen Stephens, a representative of the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health in Riyadh, said, according to Science News. “We can only guess at its risks.”

SARS infected approximately 8,100 people in 2002 and 2003, killing approximately 800 people. Unlike the SARS virus, the new virus does not seem to easily pass from person to person through the air. The cases suggest that people must come into direct contact with the virus, such as by touching a surface an infected person sneezed or coughed on.

Munster and his colleagues are conducting animal studies to determine how the virus produces illness and potentially how to counter the virus. The group was unsuccessful in an attempt to infect ferrets and mice, though it was able to cause illness in rhesus macaques. The team is using the results of the studies to focus on developing vaccines and antiviral therapies, Science News reports.

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