Brand new "SARS-like" virus has emerged in the Middle East. Time to panic?

A second person has been identified as carrying a new respiratory illness similar to the SARS virus that claimed the lives of hundreds of people in 2003. The first patient, in Saudi Arabia, has already died from the recently identified coronavirus. Both of the patients apparently contracted the disease in the Middle East, but the World Health Organization has not recommended any travel restrictions.

Coronaviruses are unusually large RNA viruses that primarily infect the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts of mammals and birds. When looked at under an electron microscope, the viruses feature a series of surface projections that make them look like a solar corona, hence the name. These viruses are typically spread in the air, but the World Health Organization (WHO) is considering the possibility that the new strain may have been transmitted directly by animals. SARS was first spread to humans from civet cats in China.

The second patient, a 49-year-old man, was transferred to a London hospital by air ambulance from Qatar.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr. John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the UK's Health Protection Agency, had this to say:

Brand new "SARS-like" virus has emerged in the Middle East. Time to panic?

In the light of the severity of the illness that has been identified in the two confirmed cases, immediate steps have been taken to ensure that people who have been in contact with the UK case have not been infected, and there is no evidence to suggest that they have. Further information about these cases is being developed for healthcare workers in the UK, as well as advice to help maintain increased vigilance for this virus.

There is no evidence at this time to suggest that the virus is spreading from person to person, nor is it clear if this coronavirus will prove to be as virulent as SARS — a disease that hit more than 30 countries worldwide after spreading from Hong Kong.

Officials are eager to get on top of the situation prior to the upcoming Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia next month — which experts fear could be an opportunity for the virus to spread.

Sources: BBC, CBC. Image: Barnaby Chambers/Shutterstock; SPL>BBC.