China Identifies New Virus Causing Pneumonia-Like Illness

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HONG KONG — Chinese researchers say they have identified a new virus behind an illness that has infected dozens of people across Asia, setting off fears in a region that was struck by a deadly epidemic 17 years ago.

There is no evidence that the new virus is readily spread by humans, which would make it particularly dangerous, and it has not been tied to any deaths. But health officials in China and elsewhere are watching it carefully to ensure that the outbreak does not develop into something more severe.

Researchers in China have “initially identified” the new virus, a coronavirus, as the pathogen behind a mysterious, pneumonialike illness that has sickened 59 people in the city of Wuhan and caused a panic in the central Chinese region, the state broadcaster, China Central Television, said on Thursday. They detected this virus in 15 of the people who fell ill, the report said.

The new coronavirus “is different from previous human coronaviruses that were previously discovered, and more scientific research is needed for further understanding,” the report said.

“So, there are still a lot of question marks,” said David Hui, an expert in emerging infections at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The authorities in Wuhan are still closely monitoring 163 people who were in close contact with the patients, Dr. Hui said. He added that 15 days, the minimum incubation period for some viral infections, had not yet passed since the last reported instance of the disease, on Dec. 29.

“It’s premature to say that there’s no human-to-human transmission,” Dr. Hui said.

The Wuhan government confirmed on Dec. 31 that the health authorities were treating dozens of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause. Symptoms of the new illness include high fever, difficulty breathing and lung lesions, according to the Wuhan health commission. Seven people have become critically ill, the Wuhan authorities have said. On Wednesday, the local health commission said eight people had been discharged.

Researchers have been encouraged by the fact that patients’ relatives and hospital workers have not been reported to have gotten sick, signaling that the virus may not spread easily among humans.

“We can assume that this virus transmissibility is not that high,” said Guan Yi, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Hong Kong, who was part of a team that successfully identified the coronavirus that caused SARS.

Dr. Guan said he was not surprised that the virus identified was a coronavirus, because coronaviruses can pass from animals to humans easily. But he said it would probably be a while before researchers came up with treatments for the illness.

So far, the cases in China have circulated only in Wuhan. The initial cases were linked to workers at a market that sold live fish, animals and birds. Workers disinfected and shut down the market after the city health department said many of the cases had been traced to it.

The new illness appeared just weeks before the Spring Festival, China’s biggest holiday, when hundreds of millions of people travel. The authorities have urged the public to be on alert for pneumonialike symptoms like fevers, body aches and breathing difficulties.

Until Thursday’s announcement, it was not clear what was causing the illnesses in Wuhan. The World Health Organization said Wednesday that it had concluded that it was most likely a coronavirus. “More comprehensive information is required to confirm the pathogen,” the W.H.O. said in a statement.

Early reports on ProMED, a disease-alert service, said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

Last weekend, laboratory tests in China ruled out SARS; the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS; the flu; bird flu; adenoviruses; and other common pathogens that cause pneumonia.

Health officials in Asia have stepped up screenings and isolated patients with flulike symptoms who had traveled to Wuhan. In Hong Kong, eight people with fever and respiratory symptoms who had recently been in Wuhan were hospitalized on Wednesday.

In South Korea, the authorities said on Wednesday that they had put a Chinese woman under isolated treatment after she was found to have pneumonia after trips to China, including Wuhan.

In Singapore, the authorities placed a Chinese girl with pneumonia in isolation because she had traveled to Wuhan. On Sunday, they said doctors had determined that the child had a common childhood viral illness.

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