Coronavirus: is this the next pandemic?
Last September a doctor in a Saudi hospital was fired for reporting a new, deadly strain of the coronavirus. Now, with half of all confirmed cases ending in death, the World Health Organisation has issued a global alert and scientists are preparing for the worst
Friday 15 March 2013
In mid-June last year, Ali Mohamed Zaki, a virologist at the Dr Soliman Fakeeh Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, took a call from a doctor who was worried about a patient. The 60-year-old man had been admitted to the hospital with severe viral pneumonia and the doctor wanted Zaki to identify the virus. Zaki obtained sputum from the patient and set to work. He ran the usual lab tests. One after another they came back negative.
Puzzled by the results, Zaki sent a sample to a leading virology lab at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. While he waited for the Dutch team to examine the virus, Zaki tried one more test of his own. This time he got a positive result. It showed the infectious agent belonged to a family of pathogens called coronaviruses. The common cold is caused by a coronavirus. So is the far more deadly infection Sars. Zaki quickly emailed the Dutch lab to raise the alarm. Their tests confirmed his fears, but went further: this was a coronavirus no one had seen before.
To alert other scientists, Zaki posted a note on proMED, an internet reporting system designed to rapidly share details of infectious diseases and outbreaks with researchers and public health agencies. The move cost him dearly. A week later, Zaki was back in his native Egypt, his contract at the hospital severed, he says, under pressure from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health. “They didn’t like that this appeared on proMED. They forced the hospital to terminate my contract,” Zaki told the Guardian from Cairo. “I was obliged to leave my work because of this, but it was my duty. This is a serious virus.”