HAMILTON — Scientists at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton are scrambling to research and understand a deadly new virus that has sparked fears of a new SARS-like outbreak.
This newly identified coronavirus first caught the attention of scientists when it killed a man in Saudi Arabia this past September.
A short while later, doctors in the United Kingdom treated a man who had contracted the virus while traveling in Saudi Arabia. That patient survived, and there was a short lull of no new cases that had researchers cautiously optimistic.
However, in November, five more people died in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and four more were infected. The rapid spread of the disease brought back memories of 2003, when SARS caused a worldwide panic.
SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is also caused by a coronavirus and killed more than 900 people in several countries and sickened more than 8,000 other patients.
The coronavirus is a nightmare for scientists because it can spread rapidly from person to person through the air. Until SARS, coronaviruses were viewed by most scientists as relatively harmless causes of the common cold.
The coronavirus is so named because the spikes on the surface of the virus particle resemble a crown, which in Latin is “corona.”
Dr. Heinz Feldmann, the chief of the Laboratory of Virology at RML, which is a division of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was among a group of scientists who tracked the spread of SARS in 2003 from its origin in southern China to a Hong Kong hotel, where several guests had contracted the virus.
In response to this new outbreak, he teamed up with Dr. Vincent Munster, the head of the Virus Ecology Unit at RML. They have begun to study the new coronavirus in Syrian hamsters and rhesus macaques, a monkey native to Asia.
“The virus appears to cause severe lung and kidney damage,” Feldmann explained in a statement about the research. “We want to mimic human infection in an animal model to understand how this novel coronavirus causes disease and whether there is a potential for transmission of the virus among humans.”
Other scientists at Erasmus University in the Netherlands are conducting similar tests in ferrets and cynomolgus macaques. The two research groups are coordinating their efforts to see which species might be the most suitable to study as a model of human infection, according to RML officials.
The same four animal species are used to study other human respiratory diseases, including SARS, influenza and hantavirus.
According to Feldmann and Munster, bats are quite possibly the natural carrier for the new coronavirus, since it is closely related to viruses only they carry. However, the precise mode of transmission is still unknown.
Munster’s division conducts research on viruses that originate from bats, such as Ebola and Nipah. Officials at RML said in a statement that the new outbreak underscores the need for research on infectious disease ecology and natural carriers of infectious diseases.
Once the scientists learn how the virus spreads in an animal model, they will begin working on creating countermeasures such as antiviral treatments and vaccines to assist in preparedness efforts.
Right now, however, scientists are holding their breath hoping another outbreak doesn’t occur before their research is done.
“Several weeks passed between the cases, so we still are not sure whether there is potential for this new coronavirus to infect more people,” Munster said. “Our studies will provide valuable knowledge that should help us if this disease is indeed similar to SARS.”