A New, Unidentified Virus Is Causing Pneumonia Outbreak in China, Officials Say

illustration of a virus
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The unidentified viral illness that has sickened dozens in the Chinese city of Wuhan is not severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), according to local health officials.    

In the early 2000s, an outbreak of SARS swept the globe, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The epidemic began in China and hit the country harder than any other, so when an unknown form of pneumonia recently emerged in Wuhan, it stirred rumors of a second SARS outbreak. Now, local health officials have officially crossed SARS off the list of potential culprits, according to The New York Times

Officials also confirmed that the mystery illness is not Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), bird flu or an adenovirus

As of Sunday (Jan. 5), 59 people in Wuhan have been diagnosed with the unidentified disease, presenting with symptoms of fever, body aches, breathing difficulties and lung injury. The total number of infected people is up from the 44 cases reported last week

In addition, 21 people who recently visited the city were hospitalized in Hong Kong between Dec. 31 and Jan. 6, according to a report from the Hong Kong health department. The city will also ramp up efforts to spot feverish passengers traveling through its international airport and on its high-speed rail system, according to the report. Health authorities in Singapore are also on the alert for infected travelers and recently quarantined a young girl after her trip to Wuhan. She was later diagnosed with a common viral illness, according to the Singapore Ministry of Health.  

Rumors of a potential SARS outbreak gained traction online earlier this month, but Chinese authorities have since censored the hashtag #WuhanSARS and are now investigating eight people in Wuhan who allegedly spread misleading information about the outbreak on social media, The New York Times reported. The government failed to adequately inform the public and international health agencies during the historic SARS epidemic, which may explain the reaction of Chinese citizens to this new illness.  

"I have to emphasize this is a new disease, and no one on earth has gone through this before," Leo Poon, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong, told The New York Times. "I hope this pathogen is a less harmful one so it would not cause a major epidemic similar to SARS. It would be a nightmare for all of us."

As of yet, no health workers have contracted the mystery illness, which may indicate that the virus has not begun to spread between people, Wang Linfa, an expert on emerging infectious diseases at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, told the Times. "We should not go into panic mode," he said.  

Originally published on Live Science. 

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Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.