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Lancet Infect Dis. 2004 Nov;4(11):663-71.

The aetiology, origins, and diagnosis of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

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Department of Microbiology, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China.


Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a new infectious disease that first emerged in Guangdong province, China, in November, 2002. A novel coronavirus was later identified in patients with SARS. The detection of the virus in these patients, its absence in healthy controls or other patients with atypical pneumonia, and the reproduction of a similar disease in a relevant animal model fulfilled Koch's postulates for implicating this coronavirus as the causal agent of SARS. The full genome sequence was determined within weeks of the virus's identification. The rapid progress in the aetiology, the development of laboratory diagnostic tests, and the defining of routes of viral transmission were facilitated through a unique WHO-coordinated virtual network of laboratories, which shared information on a real-time basis through daily teleconferences. Subsequent studies have indicated that the SARS coronavirus is of animal origin, that its precursor is still present in animal populations within the region, and that live-animal markets in southern China may have provided the animal-human interphase that allowed this precursor virus to adapt to human-human transmission. These findings underscore the potential for the re-emergence of SARS and the need for laboratory tests for early diagnosis. However, the low viral load in the respiratory tract makes early diagnosis of SARS a diagnostic challenge, although improvements in the sensitivity of molecular diagnostic methods continue to be made.

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