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08 April 2003

Experts Say SARS Has Potential to Become Major Health Threat

(Panel testifies on SARS before Senate committee) (640)
By Kristofer Angle
Washington File Science Writer


Washington -- There is a very real possibility that the Severe Acute
Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus could continue to spread and evolve
into a "major health threat," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "It's real and
it's serious."

"We're not really sure where (the virus is) going to go, because we
are truly in the middle of the evolution of an epidemic," Fauci told
the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions April 7.

"Every once in a while," Fauci said, "(viruses) evolve into a major
public health threat, and others are little blips on the radar screen
in that they stay confined to the time and the place when they
initially emerged. With SARS, we know for sure that we're not dealing
with just a blip on the radar screen."

SARS is believed to be caused by a type of coronavirus, which is only
a single strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid). This point is of particular
concern among the medical community because its structure makes it
very easy to mutate.

"We're learning as we go," said Julie Gerberding, director for the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "It has the
potential to spread very quickly, and we've seen that. And it has the
potential to spread globally, we've seen that."

Gerberding said experts are especially concerned about so-called
"hypertransmitters," or "superspreaders" of SARS. She added: "Some
individuals may be especially infectious, they're especially
contagious. It's always the chance that we'll be seeing a further
spread of the infection here in this country just as it's been
observed in Canada and elsewhere in the world."

Gerberding testified there is no known effective treatment for SARS,
although the antiviral drug ribavirin is being tried. Gerberding said,
however, "I think increasingly we're a little pessimistic that it's
actually going to be a useful drug."

"There are no adequate therapies and no adequate vaccines," Fauci
said. He added that this new virus is unlike anything he's seen.

Research has already begun on a possible vaccine for SARS. The panel
of experts, however, agreed that such a vaccine might be years away.

Gerberding further added that the biggest challenge right now is
finding an effective diagnostics test. Symptoms of SARS in its early
stages are consistent with the flu. This makes identifying and
isolating SARS patients very difficult.

Also testifying before the Senate was David Heymann, executive
director of Communicable Diseases at the World Health Organization
(WHO). He said that the global response to SARS has been very good.
"All countries are following our recommendations, and there's been a
great rallying around this outbreak," he said.

Fauci noted that the helpful global response to SARS is a good test
for responding to a possible biological terror attack. For example, he
said major improvements in response capacity have been made since the
anthrax attack in the United States in October 2001.

Gerberding advised U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential travel to the
countries where SARS is especially problematic, namely Hong Kong,
China and Singapore. "We don't want to alarm people unnecessarily, but
we do want to express the fact that this is the beginning of a
problem," Gerberding said.

Gerberding testified that the surgical masks, which have become widely
used in Asia, are not a bad idea. But she added that CDC only
recommends them for people in close contact with patients suffering
from SARS.

Current figures place the worldwide SARS fatality rate at about 4
percent. As of April 8, 101 SARS related deaths have been confirmed.
There are 148 potential cases in the United States.

For current information regarding SARS check the following Website:
http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/sars/

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:
http://usinfo.state.gov)