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              This undated image released by the British Health Protection Agency shows an electron microscope image of a coronavirus, part of a family of viruses that cause ailments including the common cold and SARS, which was first identified last year in the Middle East. British officials say a mysterious virus related to SARS may have spread between humans, as they confirmed the 11th case worldwide of the new coronavirus in a patient who they say probably caught it from a family member. Officials at the World Health Organization said the new virus has probably already spread between humans in some instances. (AP Photo/Health Protection Agency)

Deadly coronavirus claims two more victims

Anne Hobson
Contributor

The World Health Organization announced on Wednesday that the new coronavirus in the Middle East killed two more people, the South China Morning Post reports.

The virus has a higher mortality rate than SARS and can infect different species, according to researchers at University of Hong Kong, The death toll has reached 11.

One of the two victims was a 73-year-old from the United Arab Emirates, and the second was a Briton who had visited Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The WHO has verified 17 cases to date.

This coronavirus targets different organs in the body and kills cells rapidly whereas SARS affects the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tract.  The term coronavirus comes from the Latin word corona, meaning “crown,” and refers to the shape of the virions.

A team of European experts determined that the coronavirus most likely originated in bats. HKU researchers say that monkeys, pigs, civet cats, and rabbits may have hosted the virus before it infected humans.

Researchers fear that if the virus mutates further, it could cause a pandemic.  Lead researcher Yuen Kwok-yung told the South China Morning Post that “it could be more virulent [than SARS].”

“The SARS coronavirus infects very few human cell lines,” Yuen added, “but this new virus can infect many types of human cell lines, and kill cells rapidly.”

Other coronaviruses do not tend to move among different types of cells; however, this new virus can attack the lower airway, liver, kidneys, and intestines as well as cell clusters that eat bodily debris, such as dead cells. Yuen fears that the coronavirus could mutate to attack the upper airway and other organs.

Victims of the new coronavirus can suffer multiple organ failure, resulting in a mortality rate of 56 percent in contrast with the SARS mortality rate of 11 percent.

However, Pinghui Feng, a professor of microbiology at USC, said that when a virus mutates to spread more easily from person to person, it often becomes less dangerous in the process.

Hong Kong’s Health Department conducted a “desktop drill” Wednesday consisting of a simulation of a steering committee meeting meant to prepare the government for a possible outbreak of the coronavirus. In the simulated meeting, representatives of 36 government agencies and other organizations assessed health risk to test the command structure and disease-control strategy.

There are no confirmed cases in the United States to date.

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