The World Health Organization tried not to raise too many red flags on Sunday when they announced that they found a rare and deadly virus nearly in the same family as SARS in a 49-year-old Qatari man in the United Kingdom. We know what you're thinking: Isn't that pretty much the plot to the movie Contagion starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow (briefly)? The answer is yes, but don't worry. The doctors say don't panic.
So far, there have been three cases of this SARS sibling, a new type of coronavirus. Two of those three patients are now dead. The third was recently transferred from an intensive care unit in Doha to a unit in London. Like any coronavirus, this new strain affects the respiratory system and causes severe pneumonia and kidney failure. While WHO says they're "currently in the process of obtaining further information to determine the public health implications" of the confirmed cases, British health authorities sound more encouraging. "Preliminary enquiries have revealed no evidence of illness in contacts of these two cases, including health-care workers," said the Health Protection Agency in a press release. "Based on what we know about other coronaviruses, many of these contacts will already have passed the period when they could have caught the virus from the infected person."
These cases appear to be linked to some deaths earlier this year in Saudi Arabia, but even still, it doesn't look like we have an epidemic on our hands yet. Then again, it only takes one. At this stage of the SARS outbreak, which took hold in rural China in 2002 and eventually killed nearly 800 people, there were already over 300 reported cases and five deaths. However, it only took one man to carry the disease from the countryside into Hong Kong where dozens of cases ultimately broke out.
But seriously, everything is okay for now. Even though they're still investigating the outbreak, the WHO isn't recommending any travel restrictions, and doctors in London would like to remind you not to panic. "Any evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission or of contact would be more worrying, raising the worry that another SARS-like agent could be emerging," Peter Openshaw, director of the Centre for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London, told Reuters. "For now, I would be watchful but not immediately concerned."
Now if there's an outbreak of this SARS lookalike at Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia's Mecca -- as the Canadian Press suggests it might -- then we'd have a problem.