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Mutant cold virus evidence mounts

Hong Kong  schools have been closed to help prevent the virus spreading.
Hong Kong schools have been closed to help prevent the virus spreading.

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• Frequently Asked Questions: SARS 
• Gallery: Mystery virus spreads 
• Country breakdown: Suspected cases of SARS 
• Special report: SARS: Mystery illness on the move 

ATLANTA, United States (CNN) -- Medical researchers in the United States say evidence is mounting that the source of a deadly flu-lke illness sweeping Asia is a previously unrecognized form of a virus related to the common cold.

Dr Jim Hughes, director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday the "preponderance of the evidence" was consistent with a "coronovirus" playing an important role in causing the illness.

We're not prepared to say it's definitive evidence yet," he said. "Much work remains to be done."

Coronavirus is a family of viruses that includes two strains known to infect humans. They are blamed for about a third of all common colds.

The mystery illness -- known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS -- has killed at least 50 people so far with China being the hardest hit nation.

On Thursday, Hong Kong authorities ordered all schools to be close in a bid to prevent the illness spreading. Eleven people have died in the former British territory of the illness so far.

Around the world, some 1,300 people in 14 countries have contracted the illness, the United Nations health body the World Health Organization says.

"It's a generation removed from the common cold and much more virulent," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters Thursday.

"It is spreading faster than we anticipated," he added. "We do not have a therapy for it yet but we are working around the clock to develop it."

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