Healthcare providers should maintain a high index of suspicion for possible new cases of a novel coronavirus, after reports of one critically ill patient and another dead, WHO announced in a press release.

Clinicians should be on the lookout for patients with unexplained respiratory illness combined with fever and cough, particularly if they have a recent history of travel to Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

The critically ill patient is a 49 year-old male Qatari national that presented with symptoms on September 3, 2012, and had traveled to Saudi Arabia several days prior to illness onset. He was admitted to an intensive care in Doha, Qatar on Sept. 7 with respiratory illness and renal failure before being airlifted to the UK on Sept. 11.

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Laboratory testing has confirmed the presence of the novel coronavirus that is nearly identical to a virus isolated from the lung tissue of a 60-year-old Saudi national, who died in that country earlier this year.

Genetic sequencing indicates the virus is related to the SARS pathogen, as well as others that cause milder disease, like colds.

No additional cases have been confirmed, the agency stated; however, a Danish hospital is reporting that it is treating several people with fever, coughing and influenza-like symptoms.

The virus’s discovery comes just before the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca next month, raising concern about the potential for spread as millions of people visit the Middle East. WHO said it will be “working closely with Saudi Arabia, as in previous years, to support the country’s health measures for all visitors,” taking part in the pilgrimage.

In the meantime, WHO has issued an interim case definition for the novel virus that includes criteria based on clinical, epidemiological and laboratory data for identifying patients “under investigation”, as well as “probable” and “confirmed” cases, as follows:

  • Under investigation: a case of unexplained acute respiratory syndrome that may include fever of at least 100.4° F and cough that requires inpatient care, or suspicion of lower airway involvement based on clinical or radiological evidence of consolidation
  • Probable: a case that meets both clinical and epidemiological criteria, but does not yet have presence of the virus confirmed from labs
  • Confirmed: a case that has laboratory evidence of the novel coronavirus

Other factors that should prompt suspicion for the new coronavirus include close contact with a probable or confirmed case, or travel to or residence in an area where infection has been reported or where infection could have occurred.