KUALA LUMPUR: The public should not be alarmed by the increase in World Health Organisation’s (WHO) estimate of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) mortality rate, a senior consultant virologist said.
Universiti Malaya’s professor of medical microbiology Prof Datuk Dr Lam Sai Kit said WHO’s new global death rate estimate of between 14% and 15%, which is double from the original estimate, was not cause for alarm because of the way mortality rates are calculated.
“It (the new death rate) should not be taken to mean that the virus has become more virulent and is therefore killing more people.”
The death rate, he noted, was calculated by dividing the number of deaths due to SARS by the number of probable cases.
“Since the epidemic is still evolving and the figures are like moving targets, it is not easy to determine the exact death rate, hence only an estimation,” Dr Lam said in an interview after a public lecture on the epidemic organised by the Akademi Sains Malaysia.
Dr Lam, who is also WHO Collaborating Centre director, said the death rate would be as high as 50% among elderly patients, especially those above 60, and much lower among younger patients.
“In some countries, if most of the patients are elderly, then naturally the rate will be higher than the global average,” he said.
On reports that the SARS virus was mutating and could become more virulent, Dr Lam said there was insufficient evidence to claim that it had a high mutation rate.
“The virus is evolving, which is a much slower process of change, and which may not result in a more virulent form,” he said, adding that it was normal for RNA (ribonucleic acid) viruses such as those causing influenza and HIV, and coronaviruses to change.
He said the public should not expect a SARS vaccine so soon, pointing out that vaccines had yet to be found for other high priority diseases like dengue and HIV.
On the question of patenting the SARS virus, Dr Lam said he was opposed to it because once a patent was filed, it would prevent others from working on the virus.
However, he said that the Atlanta-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was contemplating filing for a patent to prevent other individual laboratories from doing so and gaining exclusive rights over the virus.
Dr Lam also lauded the Health Ministry’s move to set up a P3 biosafety laboratory in Sungai Buloh, adding that it would be ideally located if it was next to the infectious diseases hospital, also to be built in Sungai Buloh.