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SARS legacy haunts race to identify mystery illness in China.

Update: On 9 January, Chinese state media reported that scientists have identified a new coronavirus as the likely cause of a pneumonia-like illness that has sickened dozens of people. Researchers have sequenced the virus’s genome, and fifteen patients have tested positive to the virus, according to Xinhua news agency.

Chinese researchers are racing to uncover the cause of a mysterious respiratory illness that has infected almost 60 people in central China. Authorities have ruled out the highly infectious severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people there in 2002–03. But missteps during that disaster may explain why scientists are being cautious about releasing information on the latest outbreak, say researchers outside the country.

As of 5 January, 59 people in the east-central city of Wuhan have been infected with the mystery virus, with 7 in a critical condition, according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. The health commission says that it has also ruled out Middle East respiratory syndrome, avian influenza and other influenza viruses as the cause, based on advice from infectious disease experts in China, including researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses one of the country’s premier biosafety laboratories. Symptoms of the illness include fever and difficulty breathing, which are common to several respiratory diseases, according to the World Health Organization, which released an emergency preparedness report on the same day.

The municipal health commission says that it is trying to isolate the virus from patients to identify the pathogen and its potential source. Many of the people who have become ill work in a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, which was shut down on 1 January. The health commission says there’s no evidence that the infection is being passed between people, suggesting it is not transmitted easily in humans.

The infection is probably an emerging zoonotic virus — infections that spread from animals to humans, says Linfa Wang, a virologist at Duke–National University of Singapore. Such infections often first appear in colder months when animal pathogens can survive and spread to people, he says.

 

Related: First possible mystery pneumonia case reported in South Korea.

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