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05/03/2013

The novel coronavirus reminds us of its presence: 3 new cases

While all eyes were on China's bird flu outbreak, Saudi Arabia reminded the world of another brewing virus every bit as worrisome: the novel coronavirus.

Oh yeah - remember the novel coronavirus? Until H7N9 came along and shone the world's klieg lights on China, the coronavirus was the scary new disease keeping public health officials awake at night. The virus is genetically related to the virus that caused SARS and up until Wednesday, it had already infected 17 people and killed 11.

Then, like a jealous first-born fed up with playing second fiddle to mommy's new baby, the coronavirus decided to screech at the top of its lungs and reclaim our attentions. On Wednesday, in one fell swoop, the Saudi Arabian government announced seven new cases -- five already dead. Suddenly, the coronavirus' tally shot up to 24 cases and 16 deaths.

Very few details were given and the timing of the announcement, along with its paucity of information, prompted some to question the transparency of the Saudi Arabian government in communicating news about this new virus. Not even the World Health Organization had much information by the time evening rolled around in Geneva, not even the patients' ages, genders or illness onset dates.

But this morning, the Saudi Arabian deputy minister for public health, Dr. Ziad Memish, revealed many more details about these new cases on ProMed, including the patients' ages, genders and illness onset dates. He also announced three additional cases, bringing the global total to 27. 

Based on the information provided, every new patient is a man with the exception of one 53-year-old woman who fell sick on April 27. The ten are all between the ages of 24 and 94 and every single patient had at least one comorbidity, meaning they had a concurrent but unrelated illness. The first person to get sick was a 59-year-old man who became ill on April 14 and died five days later; the most recent person to get sick developed symptoms on April 30 and has pneumonia but is doing 'well.'

One thing stands out from this update: the fact that one patient is a "family contact" of another patient who is already dead. The WHO followed up with its own press release on Friday and acknowledged that two confirmed cases belong to the same family -- which raises the possibilities that both were exposed to the same source of infection or one relative gave the virus to another. The second, of course, is the more concerning scenario of the two -- and we already have evidence that the virus can spread from person to person, at least in a limited way.

As little as we know about H7N9, we know even less about the coronavirus -- but this one has already shown signs of being capable of spreading between people and will certainly prove more difficult to treat.

So yes, coronavirus, thank you for the reminder. We will continue to worry about you too.

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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