Mysterious Respiratory Virus Could Be Airborne

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, March 31, 2003 (ENS) - Hong Kong health officials are taking unprecedented steps to contain the mystery virus that has killed 58 people worldwide amid new fears it could be waterborne or airborne. Early Monday the Hong Kong Department of Health quarantined one block of a large apartment complex where more than 200 people have the disease, called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

"We needed to have this isolation order to protect the public and the residents," Hong Kong Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong told reporters Monday.

Of the 203 infected residents of Hong Kong's Amoy Garden, a 10 building housing estate in the Kowloon district, 107 resided in Block E - now under a 10 day quarantine.

Most of the Block E residents were from apartments that are vertically arranged within the 35 story building and this gives rise to the concern the virus could water or airborne, Hong Kong health officials said.

Yeoh said officials have not ruled out transmission through the building's sewer system. Some 15,000 people live in the Amoy Garden housing estate. hongkong

Hong Kong is home to some seven million people. (Photo courtesy Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Scientists still do not know the cause of SARS or how to cure the more than 1,600 people infected worldwide.

Prior to this latest development in Hong Kong, health officials believed the disease was spread only through close contact with an infected person.

But this finding appears to support evidence reported last week by officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who said SARS could be caused by a new form of Coronavirus. Other forms of Coronavirus cause the common cold, which can be easily spread through the air.

"We may be in the very early stages of what could be a much larger problem," said CDC Director Julie Gerberding told reporters Saturday.

Laboratory evidence from at least seven different countries supports a link between SARS and Coronavirus, Gerberding said.

Coronavirus can survive in the environment for two to three hours, Gerberding explained, and it is possible the new virus could be airborne as well as transferable through objects contaminated by an infected person.

"We are very concerned about the spread of this virus, particularly in Asia," Gerberding said. "It is a respiratory virus, it does appear to be transmitted very efficiently, and what we know about respiratory viruses suggests that the potential for infecting large numbers of people is very great."

World health officials believe SARS originated in China, which has reported 800 infected and 34 dead. Chinese officials had been reluctant to cooperate with the World Health Organization (WHO), but have softened their position in recent days. Hong Kong has reported 610 infected and 13 dead. Gerberding

CDC Director Julie Gerberding is growing increasingly convinced that SARS is caused by a new form of Coronavirus. Photo courtesy Centers for Disease Control
WHO officials now believe the outbreak of the disease could have begun as early as November 2002 in southern China.

The latest figures from the World Health Organization also find SARS responsible for the deaths of four people in Vietnam, four in Canada, two in Singapore and one in Thailand.

On Saturday the disease claimed the life of the doctor who identified it, Carlo Urbani, a 46 year old Italian. Urbani identified the disease in an American businessman admitted to a hospital in Vietnam in February.

The more than 1,600 infected people are spread across 13 countries, including 91 in Singapore, 58 in Vietnam, 44 in Canada, as well as 59 in the United States. The other countries where SARS has been found are France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Romania, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Although experts believe more than 90 percent of those infected recover from SARS, there is no known treatment. Hong Kong officials are not the only ones that have resorted to drastic measures.

Taiwanese officials have confined some 500 people to their homes and closed some of its limited links to China.

In Singapore, some 1,500 people have been quarantined and some airline passengers are being screened upon arrival.

In Canada, which has seen the worst of the disease outside of Asia, some 30 individuals have been quarantined in British Columbia. Two hospitals were closed in Ontario, including the Scarborough Grace Hospital, which is considered by Canadian health officials to be the epicenter of the nation's outbreak. Yeoh

Hong Kong's Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong said his government regretted having to take such strong measures to contain the virus. Photo courtesy Hong Kong Department of Health
The effectiveness of these quarantines is up for debate. Hong Kong officials, for example, did not reach all residents of the quarantined block of Amoy Gardens by Monday. It is feared that many may have fled rather than be quarantined.

Officials said simple things, like frequent hand washing, could help stem the spread of the disease. "Prevention of this disease involves very good environmental and personal hygiene," Yeoh said.

The disease has underscored growing fears about the potential for an infectious disease to spread rapidly and easily, especially in heavily populated areas.

SARS is beginning to have an economic impact on Asia. The leading Asian stock markets all fell on Monday as airlines continued to cancel flights to the region.

Health experts are hoping that increased cooperation from China will produce much needed insights into the virus and the outbreak, Gerberding explained.

"The biggest unknown is what is going on in China and we are desperate to learn more about the scope and magnitude of the problem there." Gerberding said, "I think [that] will be the biggest predictor for where this will be headed over the next few weeks."