WHO announces discovery of virus that causes SARS

16 April 2003

In a crucial discovery towards finding diagnostic tools and treatment for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that a new pathogen, a member of the coronavirus family never before seen in humans, is the cause of the newly emergent infectious disease.

In a crucial discovery towards finding diagnostic tools and treatment for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that a new pathogen, a member of the coronavirus family never before seen in humans, is the cause of the newly emergent infectious disease.

The speed with which the virus – which first surfaced in China last November – was identified was the result of close international collaboration among 13 laboratories from 10 countries. While many lines of evidence over recent weeks found strong links to this virus, which belongs to the family that causes the common cold, final confirmation came today, WHO said in a statement in Geneva.

"The pace of SARS research has been astounding," Dr. David Heymann, Executive Director of WHO Communicable Diseases programmes, said. "Because of an extraordinary collaboration among laboratories from countries around the world, we now know with certainty what causes SARS."

Since it first emerged in Guangdong Province in China, SARS has infected 3,235 people as of 15 April, killing 154, with the vast majority of cases in China and Hong Kong. But the disease has spread throughout East Asia and as far afield as Canada, the United States and Brazil.

"Today, the collaboration continues as top laboratory researchers have come to WHO to design the next steps, a strategy for transforming these basic research discoveries into diagnostic tools which will help us to successfully control this disease," Mr. Heymann said. “Now we can move away from methods like isolation and quarantines and move aggressively towards modern intervention strategies, including specific treatments and eventually vaccination. With the establishment of the causative agent, we are a crucial step closer."

Stressing the collaborative effort of the contributing laboratories, Klaus Stöhr, WHO virologist and the coordinator of the SARS research network, said: "The people in this network have put aside profit and prestige to work together to find the cause of this new disease and to find way new ways of fighting it. In this globalized world, such collaboration is the only way forward in tackling emerging diseases."

WHO and the laboratories dedicated their discovery to Dr. Carlo Urbani, the WHO scientist who first alerted the world to the existence of SARS in Hanoi, Viet Nam, and who died from the disease in Bangkok on 29 March.

 

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