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Getting to the core of an emergent public health threat

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002 was a loud wake-up call for researchers studying infectious diseases. SARS infected over 8,000 people, killed 10 percent of those infected, and weakened most with pneumonia.

"The SARS outbreak was a strong reminder that new viruses can emerge, and whether new or old, pathogens can cause not only significant disease and death, but they can also have a global socioeconomic impact," said Brenda Hogue, an associate professor in the Biodesign Institutes Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology and School of Life Sciences. Hogue has been involved in a big push to uncover some of the key clues behind coronavirus illness.

When SARS emerged, no one could have predicted that a new coronavirus, usually the culprit of nothing more than a common cold in humans, could become so harmful and spread so quickly through health systems from China to Canada.

Coronaviruses routinely cause about 30 percent of the common colds in humans, and infect a large number of animals where they cause significantly more severe diseases.

"We expect that some of what we learn about coronaviruses will no doubt be applicable to other viruses too," Hogue said. "Our long-term goals are to make use of this basic research to design better vaccines and develop new targets for antiviral treatments."

One of the well known characteristics of viruses is their uncanny ability to hijack the resources of its host. What made SARS such an alarming threat was that the symptoms were much more severe than had been seen before in human coronavirus infections. Even though the SARS virus has not reappeared in humans since the 2003 outbreak, Hogue remains cautious. "Epidemiologists and those of us who work with these viruses think that it will reappear," she said.

As with other emergent threats, Hogue said that the outbreak of the SARS virus in Asia was linked to animals that
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Contact: Joe Caspermeyer
joseph.caspermeyer@asu.edu
480-727-0369
Arizona State University
15-May-2007


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