The new virus emerging from a live animal market in southern China has worrisome echoes of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed 774 people worldwide in 2002 and 2003.
Two people have died from the new virus, which is closely related to the SARS virus. Forty-one people have become ill. Three travelers have carried it to Thailand and Japan.
Georgetown University infectious diseases physician Daniel Lucey worked on SARS in 2003 in China, Hong Kong and Toronto.
He says this outbreak is different in three ways.
Chinese scientists have tools that were not available in 2002. They had the acumen to look for something new. And they had something else that was missing during SARS: the transparency to warn the world.
The world first heard about a new disease coming out of Wuhan, China, Dec. 31.
A week later, Chinese researchers announced they had identified the culprit. The following week, German researchers developed the first diagnostic test.
That's fast. "It's truly an incredible accomplishment," Lucey said.
In the early 2000s, scientists looking for a virus had to grow it in animal cells in petri dishes.
The problem with SARS was "it didn't grow in any of the usual cell lines. One of the University of Hong Kong scientists had the idea, 'Well, let's just try some other cell lines. Why not? What's to lose?' And it grew in one that nobody expected it to grow in," Lucey said.
Then the researchers had to grow enough of the virus to isolate its DNA and read its genetic code, a process known as sequencing.
The technology has advanced tremendously in the past decade and a half. "
Back then, it took days to sequence," Lucey said. "Now, it can take hours."
Scientists don't even need to grow the virus in cells anymore. They can directly detect extremely small amounts of viral DNA in a patient's spit or blood.
Pneumonia in pneumonia season
Having the right tool is important, but what's more important, Lucey added, is thinking to use it at a time when it's not obvious.
It's winter in China, he said, and "it's a tribute to the insight of the Chinese clinicians to recognize that there's a new infectious disease causing pneumonia in the middle of pneumonia (or flu) season."
Lucey said that didn't happen in the first outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which has killed more than 850 people.
In April 2012, 13 health care workers at a hospital in Zarqa, Jordan, came down with pneumonia. Two died. Tests for known viruses, including SARS, came up negative.
Later, in September, a Saudi man died of pneumonia, and scientists determined that a novel virus was causing what was dubbed MERS. Only then did researchers go back and find the MERS virus in samples from the Jordanian patients.
Lucey also credits the Chinese scientists for getting the word out quickly. China drew criticism for covering up the spread of SARS in 2002. "
You need to have the frame of mind and the political will and the scientific wherewithal to share the information with the world immediately so that diagnostics can be developed immediately," he said. "And that's what's happened. China has done all those things."
However, some information is still missing.
The three patients who carried the virus outside China came from Wuhan but have no known link to the animal market identified as the source of the other infections.
"It just suggests to me that there are other people in Wuhan that are infected, and/or other animal markets," Lucey said. "The virus is out of the bag," he added. "I'm afraid we're at the beginning of the beginning, and a long way to go."