WHO announces step forward for diagnostic test for new respiratory disease

WHO announces step forward for diagnostic test for new respiratory disease

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The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) announced a major step today forward toward developing a diagnostic test for a recently emerged respiratory disease by successfully growing in cell culture an infectious agent that might be the cause of the mystery ailment, known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

"This is not just some light at the end of the tunnel, this is a real ray of sunshine," said WHO virologist Dr Klaus Stöhr, who is coordinating collaborative laboratory efforts to track down the disease that has infected 350 people, including 10 who have died, mainly in South East Asia and among health care workers.

WHO said the progress had occurred despite the failure up to now to pinpoint the exact identity of the causative agent but it cautioned that the number of patients in the test was small and more work needed to be done.

"The scientific community is excited by the news, which could be regarded as the first important step towards the development of a diagnostic test," WHO said in a press release.

Researchers at a laboratory in a new network set up on Monday took serum samples from the blood of recovering SARS patients and a matching number of healthy volunteers in what is known as a "blinded" test, WHO said.

The infectious agent resembles the morphology of a Paramyxovirus but scientists cannot be certain about the identity of the virus, which may indeed be a new Paramyxovirus or another virus with a similar morphology.

The laboratory is one of 11 leading facilities participating in an international multicentre research project set up by WHO on 17 March to expedite identification of the causative agent and rapidly develop a diagnostic test for the disease, the symptoms of which include high fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing.

WHO also announced that a team of five infectious disease experts would travel to China over the weekend at the request of the Chinese Government to help investigate an outbreak of atypical pneumonia that began in Guangdong Province in mid-November, which sickened 305 people, killing five. That outbreak has been linked to the current one, which first surfaced in Asia in mid-February, by geography and timing.

SARS cases have now been detected in 13 countries on three continents. Hong Kong, which as of today accounts for 203 of the 350 suspected or probable cases reported worldwide, remains the most severely affected area. Countries reporting their first suspected cases are Italy and Ireland, with one case each. New cases were reported in Hong Kong (30), Singapore (5), Taiwan, China (2), Thailand (3), and the United States of America (2).