ATLANTA—Global health authorities are hunting for cases of a mysterious respiratory illness that killed at least one person in Saudi Arabia and left another who traveled there in intensive care in a London hospital.
Health officials said the source of the virus infecting both is unknown, though they have identified it as a coronavirus, part of a large family of viruses that in most cases cause common colds, but also have caused SARS.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome erupted in China in late 2002 and spread to a number of countries, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing about 775 before it disappeared in mid 2003.
The World Health Organization said the new virus has been identified in a 49-year-old man from Qatar who traveled to Saudi Arabia before falling ill Sept. 3. He is being treated for acute respiratory syndrome and kidney failure.
The virus that infected him bears a 99.5% similarity to one isolated from the lung tissue of a 60-year-old man from Saudi Arabia who died this summer after suffering respiratory and kidney failure, the WHO said.
Saudi officials identified a third death, but didn’t give further details. The WHO said it was a suspect case that can’t be confirmed postmortem.
However, the U.K.’s Health Protection Agency said it was investigating the case of a person from the Middle East who died in the U.K.
“There is no evidence at present to suggest that it is caused by the same virus or linked to the other two cases,” the HPA said, adding that it was “aware of a small number of other cases of serious respiratory illness in the Middle East in the past three months.”
The cases come a month ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage, which draws millions of Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. The Hajj pilgrimage runs this year from roughly Oct. 24 to Oct. 29.