September 24, 2012 12:36 pm
Two different men, one a Saudi Arabian national and the other a man from Qatar who had been on vacation in Saudi Arabia, have been diagnosed with a disease caused by a new type of coronavirus, says the World Health Organization. The family of coronaviruses includes viruses that cause common colds and the virus that causes SARS; these two patients suffered from symptoms like breathing problems and kidney failure. These are the only two confirmed cases of people being affected by the new virus, according to the Canadian Press, though researchers are working on pinning down a third potential case.
However, extra worry is lobbed on top of the emergence of this new virus because of the timing of the outbreak. From October 24 to 27, during the Hajj, one of the most important Islamic traditions, people from all the world over will congregate in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
With so many people traveling into a dense region, the emergent coronavirus could see ideal conditions for it to propagate throughout the population. At the end of the festivities, all of those people returning home could act as a vector for global transport of the disease. Any massive event like this—think of the Olympics or the World Cup—can aid in the spread of a disease, and as journalist and author Maryn McKenna, who specializes in emergent diseases, points out, the Hajj has the potential to distribute this new one very efficiently.
All that being said, there are still very important questions about the threat posed by the virus itself. The emergence of this new type of coronavirus is not by itself justification for inflated worry; SARS was bad, killing roughly 800 people. The common cold, for healthy adults, is typically benign. At this point, the WHO “does not recommend any travel restrictions,” and Branswell adds that “[w]hile word of a coronavirus outbreak immediately brings SARS to mind, there is too little information at this point to say whether this is anything more than a blip on the viral radar.”
In a release, the United Kingdom’s Health Protection Agency says that scientists have yet to see signs that the virus can jump from person to person. They also add that there are still a lot of unknowns. If it is found that the new coronavirus can be transmitted between people, however, then that would be a cause for more worry.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Stopping a Scourge
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.