Researchers from the University of Hong Kong warned that a new coronavirus that has emerged from the Middle East has the potential to be deadlier than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, which kiled 774 people between 2002 and 2003. The Global Post reported Friday that the University of Hong Kong team published their results this week in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.  

The new virus is named hCoV-EMC, meaning human coronavirus-Erasmus Medical Center, after the Dutch hospital where it was first isolated. It has killed 11 people since September of last year and attacks multiple systems of the body, unlike SARS which was specifically a respiratory virus.

Lead researcher and study author Yuen Kwok-yung told the South China Morning Post, "The SARS coronavirus infects very few human cell lines. But this new virus can infect many types of human cell lines, and kill cells rapidly."

Patients infected with the Erasmus virus die of multiple organ failure as the organism attacks the body at multiple points, particularly the kidneys. Thus far, the virus has a 65 percent mortality rate, compared to an 11 percent mortality rate in patients infected with SARS.

Scientists are rushing to create a vaccine, even as they attempt to gain more knowledge of the pathogen, including questions as to where it came from, how rare or widespread it is, whether all forms of the disease are equally severe, what animals it thrives in and how it makes the leap to human hosts.

According to U.S. microbiologists Tom Gallagher and Stanley Perlman, current evidence shows that, unlike SARS, the virus is not easily transmissible between humans. The scientists at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands believe that the virus enters the body through the lungs, latching on to a specific receptor cell in the respiratory tract.

The same cell is common in common pipistrelle bats, which would point to bats as a natural source of the virus. Whether the virus is transmitted straight to humans from bats or through another animal vector is still unknown. Viruses and bacteria are constantly mutating and it is always possible that hCoV-EMC could evolve into a form that is more easily spread from person to person.

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