The emergence of a deadly virus previously unseen in humans that has already killed half those known to be infected requires speedy scientific detective work to figure out its potential.
Experts in virology and infectious diseases say that while they already have unprecedented detail about the genetics and capabilities of the novel coronavirus, or NCoV, what worries them more is what they don’t know.
The virus, which belongs to the same family as viruses that cause the common cold and the one that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), emerged in the Middle East last year and has so far killed seven of the 13 people it is known to have infected worldwide.
Of those, six have been in Saudi Arabia, two in Jordan, and others in Britain and Germany linked to travel in the Middle East or to family clusters.
“What we know really concerns me, but what we don’t know really scares me,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the U.S.-based Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a professor at the University of Minnesota.
Less than a week after identifying NCoV in September last year in a Qatari patient at a London hospital, scientists at Britain’s Health Protection Agency had sequenced part of its genome and mapped out a so-called “phylogenetic tree” – a kind of family tree – of its links.
Swiftly conducted scientific studies by teams in Switzerland, Germany and elsewhere have found that NCoV is well adapted to infecting humans and may be treatable medicines similar to the ones used for SARS, which emerged in China in 2002 and killed a tenth of the 8,000 people it infected.
“Partly because of the way the field has developed post-SARS, we’ve been able to get onto this virus very early,” said Mike Skinner, an expert on coronaviruses from Imperial College London. “We know what it looks like, we know what family it’s from and we have its complete gene sequence.”
Yet there are many unanswered questions.
“At the moment we just don’t know whether the virus might actually be quite widespread and it’s just a tiny proportion of people who get really sick, or whether it’s a brand new virus carrying a much greater virulence potential,” said Wendy Barclay, a flu virologist, also at Imperial College London.