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CDC close to determining SARS culprit

From Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Medical Correspondent

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said Tuesday they are "90 percent sure" that a new species of coronavirus is responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

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CNN's Elizabeth Cohen has an update on the SARS virus including the temporary quarantine of an airliner at San Jose International Airport
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There are several species in the coronavirus family, which is so-named because its viruses generally have projections which give it a crown-like appearance under magnification. Research on the viruses has been hampered because they are difficult to grow in a laboratory. They infect a variety of mammals and birds and generally cause cold-like symptoms and intestinal upset.

If the new strain is the culprit, its discovery could bring quick progress in fighting the disease, since coronavirus strains usually respond to medicine.

The mystery illness with cold-like symptoms has sickened 1,804 people in 15 nations, and is blamed for the deaths of 62, with most cases in Asia, according to the World Health Organization.

The WHO totals do not include the deaths of an elderly Toronto couple, which Canadian health officials Tuesday blamed on SARS. That raised the total deaths blamed on SARS in Canada to six.

WHO cites 806 cases and 34 deaths in China, and 685 cases with 16 deaths in Hong Kong.

Fear of the spread of the disease caused Hong Kong officials recently to quarantine several hundred residents in a housing complex, and Tuesday it was moving out many of those residents so their buildings could be examined by medical investigators.

No deaths are blamed on the disease in the United States, where 69 cases have been reported.

CDC: Most recover in one week

Finding a way to fight SARS has so far eluded researchers, although health officials in Hong Kong said Sunday that the drug ribavirin has shown promise. At least 90 percent of patients treated with the antiviral drug there have recovered, Hong Kong's Department of Health officials said.

Because most SARS cases have occurred in Asian countries, recent travel to Asia is one of three benchmarks used by U.S. health officials in determining likelihood of the disease, along with a temperature of 100.4 Fahrenheit (38.0 degrees Celsius) or greater, and signs of respiratory illness, such as cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing.

While at the CDC to attend the opening of an emergency operations facility Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the problem is not considered severe enough in the United States to warrant quarantines.

"We are putting out travel advisories to people who travel to Asia to be careful," he said. "And for those planes bringing people back from Asia, we're taking care of those people that are sick, and making sure they have all the information possible."

At least one private, small-scale quarantine is under way in the United States. It was imposed by the headmaster of a private school in Greenwich, Connecticut, who is prohibiting about 40 students and staffers from returning to school until next Monday, about 13 days after they returned from a trip to China.

The death rate from SARS is relatively low, at about 3.5 percent, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said Saturday. Most patients recover, usually within about seven days, she said.

Gerberding also said the rapid spread of the disease throughout communities in Hong Kong and Vietnam suggests the infectious agent might be airborne, meaning the disease could spread even without face-to-face contact.

The agent might also survive on inanimate objects, such as tabletops, and infect others that way, she said.

The CDC has issued travel advisories for Hong Kong, mainland China; Hanoi, Vietnam, and Singapore, saying people planning non-essential travel to those destinations "may wish to postpone their trips until further notice."

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