HONG KONG: The virus causing the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has been identified as a member of the paramyxoviridae family - the family of microbes that causes measles, mumps and canine distemper.
Doctors here and in Germany identified the virus after days of testing but the results have yet to be confirmed by the World Health Organisation that is co-ordinating investigations by 11 laboratories in 10 countries.
The paramyxoviridae family of viruses is also the same one that caused the Nipah virus outbreak which killed over 100 people in various parts of Malaysia and Singapore in 1999.
The breakthrough in identifying the virus came as the number of people infected with the outbreak rose to 219 including 11 deaths – the latest being a French doctor who had treated an American businessman who had also died of the disease two weeks ago in Hanoi.
Authorities here announced on Tuesday evening that a team from the Prince of Wales Hospital and Chinese University of Hong Kong had identified the virus. The findings, were further confirmed by a molecular technique that revealed the nucleic acid sequence of the virus.
According to news agencies, specialists at the Institute for Medical Virology at Frankfurt University in Germany made a similar discovery but added that genetic testing needed to be done to further confirm their results.
In Petaling Jaya, Prof Datuk Dr Lam Sai Kit, director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Influenza Surveillance Network based in Malaysia, described the initial findings in Hong Kong and Germany as a very good lead.
Dr Lam, who is the virologist who discovered the Nipah virus, said the next thing for scientists to do now was to check if the virus fitted the characteristics of any of the types of the viruses in the family.
If it does not, it is a novel (unknown) virus, he said.
Dr Lam said the paramyxovirus was a respiratory syncytial virus. It is ubiquitous, spreads very fast and is a common infection among children.
Although the SARS was initially thought to be influenza because of the flu-like symptoms, it is not.
While influenza is spread by aerosol (air), SARS is spread by droplets. That means the paramyxovirus is not spread through casual contact but by direct contact such as among family members and health workers.
As such, Lam said there is no need for unnecessary panic for airline passengers if all precautions recommended by WHO are taken.
The network under the Faculty of Medicine in Universiti Malaya has been placed on full alert to join the 110 WHO Influenza Centres around the world to monitor and identify the cause of SARS.
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