A mysterious pneumonia has sickened dozens of people in China, and one of the only things health officials know for sure is that it isn’t being caused by a past bogeyman like the SARS virus.
According to health officials, the Associated Press reported Sunday, 59 people had been diagnosed with the mystery illness as of January 5, with all known cases seeming to originate from Wuhan, the capital city of the Hubei province. Victims have commonly experienced fever, though several have developed breathing problems as well. In at least a few patients, medical imaging has found clear signs of a serious lung infection, with at least seven people currently in critical condition.
While the likely culprit is a virus, doctors quickly ruled out suspects that typically cause respiratory illness, like a strain of influenza or an adenovirus. Less certain was whether it could be an re-emergence of the virus behind SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. The SARS virus was first discovered during a 2002 outbreak that sickened over 8,000 people and killed more than 700 people, predominantly in China and Hong Kong. But in their latest update, Chinese health officials ruled out SARS alongside the related virus that causes MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, and bird flu.
“I have to emphasize this is a new disease, and no one on earth has gone through this before,” Leo Poon, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong, told The New York Times.
The exclusion of SARS as the cause of this illness won’t come without controversy in a country known for stifling the public statements of its residents, though. The Guardian reported Tuesday that the Chinese government has censored a popular hashtag that arose last month when the first cases emerged, #WuhanSARS. Infamously, China tried for months to cover up information about the spread of SARS within its borders during the initial 2002 outbreak.
Provided the Chinese government’s information is trustworthy, however, there may be some good news. So far, there have been no reports of doctors or health care workers coming down with the illness, suggesting it doesn’t spread from person to person easily. A zoonotic disease, one that spreads from animals to people, is much less likely to erupt into a widespread outbreak or epidemic.
At this point, the most common potential link between patients has been that many operated stalls at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. The market, which was shut down last week, is typically filled with an assortment of live animals, including birds and rabbits, according to the South China Morning Post.