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This award-winning blog supplements the articles in Hospital Infection Control & Prevention.

‘I knew SARS and you’re no SARS’

January 12th, 2015

You may have heard or read that a 49-year-old man from the nation of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula was transferred to a London hospital by air ambulance, the second person confirmed with a new SARS-like coronavirus. The first case was a patient in Saudi Arabia who has since died. The World Health Organization has not recommended any travel restrictions, but vigilance is advised all around.

That said, the new bug was greeted somewhat rudely by one epidemiologist. In this political season, we risk the metaphor that his response was somewhat reminiscent of the withering Jack Kennedy line Lloyd Bentsen lobbed at Dan Qualye in the 1998 vice-presidential debate: “I knew SARS and you’re no SARs.”

Professor John Oxford, a virology expert at Queen Mary at the University of London, said he was "somewhat relaxed" about the news. "SARS was very quick off the mark infecting hospital staff etcetera, and this new virus does not to me appear to be in the same 'big bang' group," according to a report by the BBC.

Perhaps, equating health care workers to coal mine canaries is a bit politically incorrect, but Oxford’s point is spot-on that they were some of the first victims of the original 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Coming swiftly out of Hong Kong as a severe infection of unknown etiology, SARS hit Toronto hospitals particularly hard. A postmortem analysis of the outbreak hospitals in Hong Kong , Singapore, Guangdong Province, and Toronto showed that 378 (57%) of 667 cases occurred in healthcare workers or medical students.

Of course, we have only one hospitalized case in the UK so it’s hardly surprising that spread to health care workers has not occurred. Indeed, the transmissibility of the new virus has not precisely been determined, though its similarities to SARS would suggest that it would spread between humans. That said, the world is much more prepared almost a decade after SARS appeared, having also weathered the 2009-2010 H1N1 influenza A pandemic.