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Outbreak Of New SARS-Like Virus Kills 5 In Saudi Arabia

The new coronavirus uses spikes on its surfaces to infect cells.
Elizabeth R. Fischer/Rocky Mountain Labs/NIAID/NIH
The new coronavirus uses spikes on its surfaces to infect cells.

With a new bird flu in China, it's easy to forget that there's another worrisome virus emerging in the Middle East.

Today we got a rude reminder of its presence.

Five more people have died from a new SARS-like virus on the Arabian Peninsula, the World Health Organization said Thursday. Two others are being treated in intensive care.

That brings the total cases to 24, including 16 deaths.

Since the virus first appeared in April 2012, it has been detected in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the U.K.

There's very little information about the seven new cases, except that they were all reported at the same hospital in Al-Hasa — a region on the eastern edge of Saudi Arabia, bordering the Persian Gulf.

"We have not found any cases anywhere else in the eastern region," Dr. Ziad Memish, from the Saudi Ministry of Health, told The National.

The virus — known as nCoV — is a cousin of SARS, which killed more than 750 people in 2003. Like SARS, nCoV causes severe pneumonia, but it doesn't spread easily between people.

In February, two family members in Britain caught the virus from a relative who had been traveling through Saudi Arabia. But otherwise, there has been little evidence of person-to-person transmission.

Genetic sequencing shows that nCoV is most closely related to a bat virus. But health workers still don't know where the virus comes from.

"That's the million-dollar question," virologist Alison Bermingham of the U.K. Health Protection Agency told Shots a few weeks ago. "We don't really know how any of these patients have caught the virus, except for the two families in the U.K.," Bermingham said, referring to the first 17 cases.

"We don't have a good handle on what's happening on the Arabian Peninsula or elsewhere," she added. "But we're hopeful that authorities there are actively investigating their severe respiratory illnesses."

"Viruses are one of those things that pop up every now and then. You just don't know when they're going to cause human infections," she said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.
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