We probably all remember with a certain amount of fear and trepidation when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) emerged from China and Toronto like a rocket in 2003. The outbreak totaled 8,422 cases and 916 deaths worldwide, and highlighted the potential for newly emerging zoonotic coronaviruses to transmit from person to person, especially in healthcare settings, and to cause severe human illness.

A SARS coronavirus.

As a quick reminder, zoonosis is any infectious disease that can be transmitted between species. Most public health professionals believe our best chances for severe pandemic diseases are to be found in zoonotic infections.

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It was with some concern that the world health community heard about a case of a new novel corona virus in London.  On 22 September 2012, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in London, United Kingdom (UK), confirmed infection with a novel coronavirus in a patient in a London hospital who had been transferred from Qatar 11 days previously. This patient represents the second confirmed case of severe acute respiratory illness caused by this novel coronavirus. The first case was identified in a Saudi Arabian national who died in June 2012.

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In Eurosurveillance, Volume 17, Issue 40, 04 October 2012, the authors discuss the discovery, tracking and isolation of the contacts of this patient and the results of this close and prompt surveillance.  It is a great story of prompt public health reporting and tracking and an interesting read.  Disease tracking is pretty interesting detective like work and this story now involves at least two countries for now…and there may be more as the investigation continues.

Now the story returns to Saudi Arabia where two teams of health professionals from the World Health Organization and the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University in New York are in Riyadh on the invitation of the Saudi government are in a search to find the source of this new novel virus.  The Columbia team includes virologist Dr. Ian Lipkin, who was described as “the world’s most celebrated virus hunter” by Discover magazine in a profile earlier this year. It also includes two experts from EcoHealth, a New York City-based international organization for ecology and health.

Stay tuned – this could be really, really interesting!