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Wednesday
Mar272013

SARS-Like Virus Kills Two More People in Germany and Britain

TongRo Images/Thinkstock(GENEVA, Switzerland) -- The mysterious SARS-like virus that appears to have originated in the Middle East has claimed two more victims after people died from the infection in Germany and in Britain.

Their deaths bring the number of fatalities attributed to the virus to 11, and six others have been determined to have been infected by the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

Health officials are concerned that the SARS-like virus could come to the United States or Canada, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have alerted state and local health departments to be on the lookout for suspicious illnesses in people who have recently traveled to the Middle East.

The latest victims were a 73-year-old man from the United Arab Emirates who died in Munich, Germany, after being flown there for treatment, and a United Kingdom resident, whose age is not known, but who had traveled to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia before falling ill, according to a WHO statement.

"We're on the alert looking for this, and I think that's why these cases are now being discovered," Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., told ABC News. "Because people with puzzling pneumonia who we can't figure out what's going on right away are having specimens taken and sent to the reference lab for testing."

The SARS-like virus is a coronavirus, which typically causes the common cold, but also caused the original SARS virus. SARS is named for its symptoms: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

A decade ago, SARS infected 8,098 people from November 2002 through July 2003, killing 774 of them. It is believed that the virus began in Chinese horseshoe bats in 2002 before spreading to cats sold at animal markets for food, and spreading from there to humans. New cases tapered off and stopped around 2003, with the exception of eight new cases in China in 2004.

The WHO first identified the virus in September 2012 following the infections of a Qatari man in a British hospital and a woman who died in Saudi Arabia. They suffered from a 99.5 percent identical coronavirus that caused acute respiratory syndrome and renal failure. Since then, 15 more cases have been reported.

The disease appears to have occasionally spread from person-to-person, but the spread "has not been sustained," WHO spokesman Glenn Thomas told ABC News.

"It is not easily spread between people (unlike SARS)," Thomas wrote in an email. "It may, or may not be the case, that there are more people who have this virus in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. We are asking countries to enhance surveillance for this virus, and so we may find more cases as a result of better surveillance. But so far only 17 cases have been confirmed."

Schaffner said the knowledge that it hasn't spread to health care workers is a comfort.

In Canada during the 2003 SARS outbreak, the virus was so readily transmitted that extra hospital staff were stationed outside SARS patients' rooms to make sure health care workers didn't enter without full protective gear.

"That has not happened with these patients yet," he said. "It indicates that this is not a virus that is readily transmitted person-to-person."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio