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Hopes rise as SARS bug identified

Air passengers leaving Hong Kong are now required to be screened for SARS symptoms.
Air passengers leaving Hong Kong are now required to be screened for SARS symptoms.

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GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- A virus from the same group that causes the common cold but which has never before been seen in humans is the cause of the deadly SARS illness, the World Health Organization has confirmed.

The newly recognized pathogen (disease agent) -- which will be known as the "SARS virus" -- is a member of the coronavirus family, the WHO announced Wednesday, adding that the breakthrough was a key step in the hunt for a cure and possible vaccine against the disease.

Scientists have been focusing on the virus as the suspected cause of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, for several weeks.

Around the world the death toll from the virus topped 160 by early Thursday, with more than 3,200 cases of infection reported.

However, the WHO says of those patients recorded as infected about half, 1,548, have since recovered.

Coronaviruses -- so-named because they have a halo or crown-like appearance when viewed under a microscope -- commonly cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory illness in humans and are associated with respiratory, gastrointestinal, liver and neurologic disease in animals.

"The pace of SARS research has been astounding," Dr. David Heymann, WHO's executive director of communicable disease programs, said Wednesday.

"Because of an extraordinary collaboration among laboratories in countries around the world, we now know with certainty what causes SARS," he added.

That collaboration was established after WHO issued a global alert on SARS on March 12, a WHO news statement said.

"The successful identification of the coronavirus means that scientists can now confidently turn to other SARS challenges," the statement said.

WHO virologist Dr Klaus Stöhr, the coordinator of the international research network, also praised the speed and collaboration of scientists around the world.

"The people in this network have put aside profit and prestige to work together to find the cause of this new disease and to find way new ways of fighting it," he said. "In this globalized world, such collaboration is the only way forward in tackling emerging diseases."

Rapid tests

On Monday, the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported scientists there had sequenced the genome for the SARS virus. (Genome mapped)

The sequencing came through "information provided by collaborators at National Microbiology Laboratory, Canada, University of California at San Francisco, Erasmus University, Rotterdam and Bernhard-Nocht Institute, Hamburg," the CDC's Web site said.

"The availability of the sequence data will have an immediate impact on efforts to develop new and rapid diagnostic tests, antiviral agents and vaccines," the site said.

start quoteThe virus doesn't differentiate between military personnel and civilians, so it's a problem that military officials don't report their figures to the Beijing governmentend quote
-- Dr. Henk Bekedam, WHO representative in China

Separately Wednesday, WHO officials said Beijing's cases of SARS had been largely under-counted, because the numbers released by the government exclude patients in military hospitals.

China's Ministry of Health told reporters last week that its figures included those in military hospitals.

WHO doctors have estimated that if military patients were included, the total number of SARS cases in Beijing could range from 100 to 200. In addition, the number of people under observation could soar.

As of Wednesday, Chinese health officials reported 37 SARS cases and four deaths in the Chinese capital.

With the disease spreading to the interior of mainland China, WHO doctors have expressed concerns about how poor provinces will find the resources to treat the disease.

In other developments:

• Health officials in Hong Kong announced four more deaths Thursday among SARS patients and said 29 more cases of infection had been reported. The latest figures bring the cumulative number of SARS cases in the territory to 65 deaths and 1,297 infections.

• With the travel and tourism industry hit particularly hard by the spread of SARS, Malaysian-based cruise ship operator Star Cruises says it is relocating two of its largest ships to Australia. (Star moves)

• Intensifying efforts to combat SARS Hong Kong authorities say they are taking a more proactive stance against the spread of the disease. Outbound Hong Kong airport passengers are having their temperatures taken and next week inbound passengers will be included in those checks, Hong kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa announced.

• New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sough to allay fears of an outbreak in that city's Chinatown Wednesday by having lunch with several community leaders there. "There are only 10 cases in all of New York City, not one of them contracted locally," Bloomberg said. "I think people should not worry about it."

• A survey says 61 percent of U.S. businesses have banned travel to Asia because of SARS. According to research conducted by the Business Travel Coalition many are now turning to other ways of communicating with Asian partners such as Web-based teleconferencing. Many businesses have also introduced strict rules governing visits from staff and clients coming from Asia.

--CNN Producer Steven Jiang contributed to this report.

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