Mystery Viral Infection in China Has Experts Baffled As SARS Ruled Out

Health officials in China are working to find the cause of a mysterious form of viral pneumonia which has sickened dozens of people in a central city.

At least 59 people in the central city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, have come down with the virus, which was first reported last week, health authorities said in a statement on Monday. All patients are isolated in the city which has a population of 19 million, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said. Of the total, seven are seriously ill, but no deaths have been reported.

The body has ruled out a number of potential culprits, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus following speculation on social media which spread to traditional outlets, according to the Johns Hopkins Outbreak Observatory. The potentially deadly form of pneumonia caused outbreaks in 2002 and 2004, and originated in China. Following the 2002 outbreak, there were 8,098 reported cases and 774 deaths.

"Respiratory pathogens such as influenza, avian influenza, adenovirus, infectious atypical pneumonia ( SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have been excluded," the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said according to a translation of a news release. Experts are still working to identify the pathogen, it said.

The first person is thought to have fallen ill on December 12, 2019, according to health officials, and the latest on December 29. A further 163 people are thought to have come into close contact with the sick, and are being followed up for medical observation.

The World Health Organization said in a statement on Sunday its China County Office was first notified of the pneumonia cases on December 31. Some patients worked at the Huanan Seafood market. The area in question was closed on January 1, and sanitized and disinfected.

That day, the WHO requested information from national authorities to assess the potential risk the virus poses. There is currently not enough information to determine the overall risk of "this reported cluster of pneumonia" with an unknown cause, it said.

"WHO is closely monitoring the situation and is in close contact with national authorities in China," the agency stated.

Chinese officials have not found any evidence of significant human-to-human transmission of the virus, and no health care workers are known to have caught the infection.

"The reported link to a wholesale fish and live animal market could indicate an exposure link to animals. The symptoms reported among the patients are common to several respiratory diseases, and pneumonia is common in the winter season; however, the occurrence of 44 cases of pneumonia requiring hospitalization clustered in space and time should be handled prudently," according to the WHO.

The WHO said travellers do not need to take specific precautions. Those who have symptoms of a respiratory illness during or after travel should seek medical attention and share travel history with their healthcare provider.

"WHO advises against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China based on the current information available on this event," it said.

Pneumonia is the term used to describe an infection of the lungs which can be caused by viruses, as well as bacteria, and fungi.

Matthew P. Shearer, senior analyst at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security wrote on Outbreak Observatory website on Thursday: "speculation that this emerging outbreak in China is due to a re-emergence of SARS is just that: speculation."

Referring to diseases which are caught in a hospital, he commented: "China has made considerable progress since SARS, particularly in terms of disease surveillance and reporting as well as clinical isolation capacity, and the absence of any reports of nosocomial transmission is an encouraging sign that patients have been quickly identified and properly isolated to prevent further transmission."

Wuhan, Yellow Crane Tower, Hubei province, china
The Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan, Hubei province, pictured on April 15, 2018. Health officials are investigating cases of a mysterious viral pneumonia in the city. AFP via Getty Images