The number of cases of a deadly virus that has now spread to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan has prompted calls to government agencies and health officials for more information about how people can protect themselves.
The microscopic serotype that has caused the most illness is a coronavirus, the world’s sixth and least-known respiratory tract infection. It is found in uncooked poultry and is spreading to people by shaking hands, coughing, and being in close contact with people.
U.S. businesses that supply food to facilities such as schools and hospitals are vulnerable, as are people who share common space. Hospital workers, food handlers and family members are not only potential carriers of the virus but also exposed to other germs when they touch a patient’s nasal discharge or waste, said David Sisk, a professor at the University of Chicago.
“It does spread rapidly, so it’s a major factor in the concern,” said Mr. Sisk, who is affiliated with the university’s hospital, the Lurie Children’s Hospital.
Since the virus first emerged in September 2012 in a Saudi Arabian man, who later died, coronaviruses have accounted for about half of the cases of respiratory illness in the Middle East. Most of the infections developed months after people had first exposed them to other people, as far away as Asia, where the coronavirus has been found on mice in laboratories. There are no cases in the United States.
Over the next couple of weeks, officials at the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan to hold a series of meetings in order to identify the latest cases and to compare the cases in the Middle East to those around the world. There are more than 100 coronaviruses and they do not all fit the same profile, according to Choudhury Dias, a virologist at the University of Maryland. It is likely that the coronavirus spreading throughout the Middle East does not have the same characteristics as those spreading in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Philippines, where it also appears to have jumped from a farming region.
Worldwide, transmission of coronaviruses is a relatively rare phenomenon; they have never been detected in humans during more than a century of research. Because of that, researchers are unsure of the proper measures to take to prevent disease.
Recently, researchers at the CDC found that when the virus has spread to multiple people, it usually infects another animal. In humans, these animals are infected by the humans, not the other way around.
In animals, more than 70 percent of coronaviruses found on laboratory mice died after infection with the chicken species known as Johne’s chicken, the species that is the mother of Johne’s coronavirus.
In humans, more than 50 percent of people with the virus still infected the mice after 16 weeks of infection.
“In human beings, we are not used to cross-infecting ourselves with other human beings and other animal beings,” said Dr. Joseph Bresee, a scientist at the CDC. “For this virus to cause this much mortality, that is a significant contributing factor.”
Dr. Bresee said that if the virus reaches humans, it is likely to emerge once the seasons change, because humans are winter dwellers and die during cold months. The virus usually dies out in April or May, when the cold weather is broken, and then comes back in the warmer months.