This new coronavirus was first identified in September 2012 in a patient who died from a severe respiratory infection in June 2012. As of 9 May 2013 there have been 33 cases detected globally. However, this is a dynamic situation and more cases may be reported. For the latest case updates please refer to the WHO website [external link].
Human coronaviruses were first identified in the mid 1960s and are named for the crown-like projections on the surface of the virus. They are a group of viruses causing respiratory infections in humans and animals. There are 3 main sub-groupings of coronaviruses, known as alpha, beta and gamma.
This is a new subtype/strain of coronavirus, first identified in the Netherlands in 2012. The virus identified by the Health Protection Agency's virus reference laboratories at Colindale is genetically very similar to the strain identified in the Netherlands. The virus identified in the UK has now been fully sequenced and detailed analysis indicates that the nearest relatives are bat coronaviruses. Since only a handful of cases have been reported, there is limited information on clinical impact, transmission and severity at this stage.
The virus has only been identified in a small number of cases of acute, serious respiratory illness who presented with fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. At this point it is not clear whether this is a typical presentation or whether it could be circulating more widely, but causing a milder illness, and only rarely causing severe illness.
There is insufficient information to make specific treatment recommendations. However, acute respiratory support for those with severe symptoms and who have been hospitalised is advised.
Coronaviruses are typically spread like other respiratory infections such as influenza.
Limited, non-sustained person-to-person transmission has been documented. If it were very infectious, many more cases in other countries or among the people caring for cases would have been seen by now.
With any new infection associated with severe illness, it is better to err on the side of caution. All infection control measures to prevent the spread of this virus are taken for any case with a confirmed diagnosis. This includes isolation of the patient, barrier nursing and ensuring that all staff wear the appropriate protective equipment.
Coronaviruses are fairly fragile, and outside of the body their survival time is only around 24 hours. They are easily destroyed by most detergents and cleaning agents.
At this stage the origin is unclear, but phylogenetic analysis suggests that the closest relatives are bat coronaviruses. New infections may occur as a result of a mutation (change) to an existing virus changing the way it is transmitted or the illness it causes.
Some new infections may appear when an organism circulating in the animal population are introduced to human beings (zoonoses). Certain infections may cause mild disease in an animal species but more severe illness in people (and vice versa).
No, a vaccine is not available.
Yes. The main test for this particular coronavirus is a screening PCR test followed by a more specific confirmatory test. A number of laboratories in the UK can now carry out the screening test for this virus.
Given that there have only been a small number of confirmed cases worldwide, people planning to travel to the Middle East should continue with their plans. Travel advice will be kept under review if additional cases occur or when the patterns of transmission become clearer. For the latest travel advice please see the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) website [external link].
If the symptoms are mild then they are probably due to a common respiratory virus such as the common cold. However if the symptoms worsen and you become breathless you should contact your General Practitioner or NHS Direct mentioning which countries in the Middle East you have visited. Even with severe respiratory illness it is still most likely that the diagnosis will be one of the more common respiratory viruses, rather than this newly recognised coronavirus.
SARS was also caused by a coronavirus but this is not SARS. Coronaviruses can cause a range of symptoms varying from mild symptoms such as the common cold to more serious respiratory illnesses.
Last reviewed: 14 May 2013