Scientists said yesterday they had identified the virus thought to cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and confirmed it had not been seen before in humans.
Research teams from the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Michael Smith Genome Centre in British Columbia, separately claimed to have sequenced the genome of the coronavirus that causes lethal pneumonia. But neither could identify its source. The CDC said it was "distinct from all previously recognised coronaviruses".
The achievement came as doctors in Hong Kong expressed alarm over the deaths of six people aged 35 to 52 over the weekend. Ko Wing-man, chief executive of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, said: "We are very unhappy that young patients have died." Hong Kong reported seven more deaths from Sars yesterday, bringing the total to 47. There were 40 new cases, bringing the total number of people infected since early March to 1,190.
Stephen Tsui, a biochemist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said early investigations showed some patients had been harder hit than others, suggesting the virus had mutated, which would make it even more dangerous. "We want to find out whether it's because the virus is different," he said. "If we can figure that out, we can predict which patients will be afflicted more severely."
Artus GmbH, a German biotechnology company, said it had developed a two-hour test that was effective in the "very earliest stages" of the disease. Existing tests work only after the infection has been present for 10 to 20 days.
In Britain, the sixth patient admitted to Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow, earlier this month, was said to be recovering well. He is thought to have contracted the infection after ameeting with a Hong Kong businessman near Heathrow airport. Four of Britain's cases have recovered and a fifth is in hospital.
The virus has killed almost 150 people and infected 3,300 across the world.