The first case of human to human transmission of a potentially fatal respiratory illness similar to the deadly Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was confirmed in Britain today.
The patient is in a stable condition in intensive care in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, and is believed to have caught the infection from a close family relative who had travelled to the Middle East.
The relative is seriously ill and was transferred from Birmingham to Wythenshawe hospital, Manchester, this week for treatment on an ECMO machine, a last resort to oxygenate the blood when the lungs have failed.
A third patient, the first in the UK who was flown here from Quatar for treatment, has been seriously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, London since September.
UK laboratories have been put on alert to test all new cases of unexplained severe pneumonia for the virus, to prevent a potentially lethal outbreak.
The Health Protection Agency said the current risk was “low” because the virus had “limited” capacity to spread. But a spokesperson for the agency added: “It could mutate. We don’t know how it will behave.”
The illness is caused by a novel type of coronavirus, a family of viruses responsible for infections ranging from the common cold to severe pneumonia. In 2003, a novel coronavirus caused an outbreak of SARS in the Far East which spread to 20 countries within a month, led to hundreds of deaths and triggered a global panic.
The new virus is distantly related to the SARS virus, and has so far claimed the lives of half of those infected. But experts emphasised yesterday it was not the same. SARS infected almost 9,000 people and caused over 800 deaths worldwide in less than six months.
However, in spreading from human to human in Britain, the new virus has already achieved what the SARS virus did not. Only four cases of SARS were recorded in Britain, all imported and none contracted here.