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Outbreak of mysterious illness in China traced to never-before-seen virus

Dozens of people are suffering from a pneumonia outbreak now attributed to a virus related to deadly SARS.

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A coronavirus was recognized as being behind the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a frightening specter. The contagious, deadly virus raged in China in 2003. In recent weeks, a mysterious new respiratory illness has appeared in Wuhan CIty in Hubei Province, sickening 44 people as of early January. We now know a little more about the virus behind it and how it relates to SARS.

On Thursday, the World Health Organization issued a statement saying Chinese authorities have made a preliminary determination that the cryptic sickness is not SARS, but it is caused by a new coronavirus. Coronaviruses can range in severity from the common cold to more deadly strains like SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome.

Chinese investigators made the discovery after gene-sequencing a sample of the virus collected from a patient. The virus has caused severe symptoms in some, but does not seem to be highly contagious. 

Most of the cases are tied to a specific seafood market, with dealers and vendors among the patients. "The reported link to a wholesale fish and live animal market could indicate an exposure link to animals," the WHO said in preliminary statement on Jan. 5.  Investigators are still tracking down the source of the illness. 

"Preliminary identification of a novel virus in a short period of time is a notable achievement and demonstrates China's increased capacity to manage new outbreaks," said the WHO. The agency will continue to monitor the situation.

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Originally published Jan. 9, 12:24 p.m. PT.