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March 22, 2003
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Test for Mystery Illness Being Developed
Scientists May Have Test to Diagnose Mystery Illness, Considered Crucial Step

The Associated Press

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GENEVA March 22

Scientists may have a test for diagnosing the mysterious flu-like illness that has sickened hundreds in Asia, and authorities said they could have it available to key laboratories within a few days if it is proved to be reliable.

The World Health Organization said Friday that the test requires further experimentation; but if successful, it would be an important tool for slowing the disease's global spread.

"We're all very pleased. It is crucial and it's another step on the way, but there's a lot that still has to be done," said Dr. David Heymann, WHO's communicable diseases chief.

A diagnostic test would make it possible for doctors to quickly isolate patients with the new disease, called severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. It has sickened more than 350 people around the world and killed 10 people in the past three weeks, according to WHO figures.

In the United States, authorities believe 22 people have fallen ill with SARS, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The State Department on Saturday warned Americans not to travel to Vietnam, one of the first countries affected.

In Hong Kong, three grade schools with sick students were closed for disinfection. The government said 210 people had fallen ill with SARS and and an elderly victim had died, though the sickness had not been confirmed as the cause of death.

Singapore, meanwhile, said it would empty one of its main hospitals and dedicate it to coping with the disease, which has stricken at least 44 people in the city-state.

Experts suspect the illness is linked to an earlier outbreak of an unidentified disease in China, where officials say 305 people fell ill and five died.

It is believed to be spread by nasal fluids mostly through sneezing and coughing in close contact.

The development of the test involved isolating the germ from a sick patient and mixing it with blood from recovered patients.

"The blood from the (recovered) SARS patients kills the virus, which means the virus was previously in these people and now they have antibodies that kill the virus," said Dr. Klaus Stohr, WHO's chief influenza scientist.

"What we have now is perhaps a test," said Stohr. "If you are ill and we don't know whether you have SARS or not, we take your blood, we run this test and we know whether you have it or not. But this has to be verified double-checked and triple-checked."

But Gerberding, the chief of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sounded skeptical.

"It's very unlikely you could have a reliable diagnostic test when you don't have an etiology," or confirmed cause for the disease, Gerberding said. She said the CDC is relying on case definitions and investigation to determine which patients have the disease.

The WHO scientist who developed the test is not yet certain what type of virus he isolated. However, the paramyxovirus family which includes measles, mumps and canine distemper remains the leading suspect. A new form of influenza, once the most feared scenario, is now low on WHO's suspect list, Heymann said.

Stohr said the virus is being sent to other labs so that the experiments can be repeated and verified.

Once refined, the test could be used to screen healthy people to see if they are carrying the virus. It could also be used to show whether the outbreak in China was caused by the same bug that has hit elsewhere, experts said.

A network of 11 laboratories in 10 countries, coordinated by WHO, has been working around the clock to try to find the cause of the illness. While it is still not proven, the latest findings indicate a virus is at play.

Two separate labs reported Friday that genetic experiments showed that some patients were infected with a new paramyxovirus, although the research could not tell whether that virus is the one causing the illness or whether it just happened to also be in the patients' specimens.

The scientists found genes identifying the virus as belonging to the paramyxovirus family, but say it is not one of the known varieties.

However, in a puzzling twist, other labs have reported seeing something under the microscope that is suspiciously unidentifiable, but which does not resemble a paramyxovirus.

"We have here a very fast-moving network. There are many negative results that help us exclude things and there are some quite promising positive results. They have to be followed up and double-checked," Stohr said. "We are turning around in hours and days information which is normally compiled, collected and compared over months and years."

On the Net:

CDC info:

World Health Organization:

photo credit and caption:
Swedish nationals residing in Hong Kong, from left to right, Inger Strom, Sunhild Edvardsson and Susanne Ekelund, wear protective masks following the outbreak and spreading of a mysterious form of pneumonia, as they walk through a Hong Kong train station after arriving from southern China, Friday, March 21, 2003. Hong Kong health officials said the number of infected people had risen by 20 to 165 as of Thursday afternoon and the World Health Organization has counted at least 264 people who got sick. (AP Photo/Anat Givon)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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