HONG KONG - The new virus behind the pneumonia outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan has a genetic makeup largely similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) virus, said a leading infectious disease expert in the city.
The University of Hong Kong's Professor Yuen Kwok Yung on Saturday (Jan 11) said the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus was "80 per cent similar" to the Sars virus found in bats, civets and humans.
Speaking at a briefing, he said the difference between the two lies in the part of the virus that determines if it could "enter animal cells".
"The genetic sequence of the virus could change, and that would completely change its toxicity and infectiousness," Prof Yuen said, noting adding the genetic sequence of the Sars virus changed in 2003 and thus was able to spread among humans.
That said, the microbiologist cautioned that there was not enough information to determine if the new infection would turn into an epidemic, reminiscent of the Sars outbreak.
The Sars epidemic originated in China, infected more than 1,700 people in Hong Kong and killed nearly 300. More than 800 people, including 33 in Singapore, died from Sars in 2002 and 2003.
Prof Yuen warned that Hong Kong must continue to stay vigilant and that the tests now used by health authorities in the city were effective in screening suspected patients.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Hospital Authority on Saturday reported a total of 60 suspected cases of the Wuhan virus since Dec 31. All the patients had made trips to Wuhan but not to the seafood wholesale market in the city where most of the confirmed cases originated.
More than two-thirds of the suspected cases in Hong Kong or 46 patients have been discharged and the remainder are in stable condition.
Hong Kong authorities have in recent days stepped up vigilance and public health surveillance, with the government making it mandatory to alert officials of any suspected cases.
"At the moment, everybody in Hong Kong including the general public, the healthcare workers and other stakeholders have to remain vigilant and don't take the new disease lightly because we have the painful experience of Sars. So we have to take every measure and closely monitor the situation," the Controller of the Centre for Health Protection Wong Ka Hei said at the briefing on Saturday.
In Singapore, the Ministry of Health said on Saturday that a second suspected case - a 26-year-old China national with pneumonia and travel history to Wuhan - was found not to be linked to the pneumonia cluster in Wuhan. The case has also tested negative for coronavirus.
Last week a three-year-old girl, also with a travel history to Wuhan, was kept in isolation until it was proven that she was not infected by the new virus.
Suspected cases of the Wuhan virus have also cropped up in Taiwan and South Korea.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.