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The Boston Globe

World

Respiratory viruses have pandemic potential

LONDON — Two respiratory viruses in different parts of the world have captured the attention of global health officials — a novel coronavirus in the Middle East and a new bird flu spreading in China.

Last week, the coronavirus related to SARS spread to France, where one patient who probably caught the disease in Dubai infected his hospital roommate. Officials are trying to track down everyone who went on a tour group holiday to Dubai with the first patient as well as all contacts of the second patient.

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Since it was first spotted last year, the new coronavirus has infected 34 people, killing 18 of them. Nearly all had some connection to the Middle East.

The World Health Organization, however, says there is no reason to think the virus is restricted to the Middle East and has advised health officials worldwide to closely monitor any unusual respiratory cases.

At the same time, a new bird flu strain, H7N9, has been infecting people in China since at least March, causing 32 deaths out of 131 known cases.

WHO, which is closely monitoring the viruses, says both have the potential to cause a pandemic — a global epidemic — if they evolve into a form easily spread between people.

Scientists don’t exactly know how humans are getting infected by the new coronavirus. There is some suggestion the disease is jumping directly from animals such as camels or goats to humans, but officials are also considering other sources, such as a common environmental exposure. The new coronavirus is most closely related to a bat virus, but it is possible that bats are transmitting the disease via another source before humans catch it.

Some studies suggest the new bird flu is jumping directly to people from poultry at live markets. Cases have slowed down since Chinese authorities began shutting down such markets. But it is unclear exactly what kind of exposure is needed for humans to catch the virus and very few animals have tested positive for it.

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