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For answers on ‘mystery flu,’ media turn to USC microbiologist

With concern growing over the recent outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, media are turning to Michael M.C. Lai for reassurance

With concern growing over the recent outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, both local and international media are turning to Keck School of Medicine microbiologist Michael M.C. Lai for information and reassurance about this highly contagious, and sometimes lethal, pathogen.

To date, almost 2,300 cases of SARS have been reported worldwide, with the vast majority hailing from China and Hong Kong. The United States had 85 cases under investigation as of April 3, with no fatalities. Around the globe, however, 79 people had died from the syndrome, a death rate of just under 3.5 percent.

Along with a lack of certainty about the identification of the virus that causes SARS is a lack of knowledge about how that viral agent is transmitted. It is possible, Lai noted, that the virus may be transmitted through the air or by touching infected objects.

But, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is probably most easily transmitted by contact with exhaled droplets or other body secretions from an infected person.

SARS was first identified in an American businessman in Vietnam in February by WHO communicable disease expert Carlo Urbani, who himself died from complications of SARS on March 29.

Initial studies of the virus that causes SARS—which causes an atypical pneumonia but whose initial symptom including fever, dry cough and shortness of breaths, mimic the flu—indicate that it may well be a coronavirus, a usually benign virus that is behind about a third of all head colds. “If SARS is a coronavirus, it’ll be one of the most severe ever reported,” Lai told the journal Nature in an interview last week.

“The media interest in SARS has been incredible,” said Lai, who is a Distinguished Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Keck School and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. “I have been studying coronavirus for nearly 30 years and have not anticipated that this virus would ever attract this much attention.”

Lai’s research on coronavirus—which has been done in collaboration with other Keck School researchers, including Leslie Weiner, professor of neurology, and Stephen Stohlman, professor of neurology and molecular microbiology and immunology—has allowed him to shed some light on the likely properties of the virus behind SARS.

“I think the concern about SARS stems partly from its transmissibility,” Lai said. “It is easily transmitted and hard to contain. Many people feel vulnerable because they do not have control over it; they cannot avoid high-risk environments, unlike with other infectious diseases. And the mortality associated with SARS is certainly a concern. But the scary part is the uncertainty that it may lead to a much bigger epidemic.”

Lai said it would be wise to take this viral threat seriously.

Among other things, he strongly advised rigorous handwashing, especially after coming into contact with anyone with SARS-like symptoms, and postponement of any trips to Asia, unless such travel is absolutely necessary.

The public and media interest in this viral invader, Lai said, likely comes from the uncertainty that surrounds it: “Once the causative agent is identified, it may be easier to bring it under control. However, the extent of the outbreak suggests that it is far from over. I think that is why it’s receiving so much publicity.”

In the last few days, Lai interviewed with the Washington Post, Nature magazine, Forbes magazine, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Daily News, KSCI-TV Channel 18, “Dateline/NBC,” KABC-TV Channel 7 and CTI TV, Taiwan’s national network.

“This is an interesting turn for basic scientists like me,” Lai commented. “You never know how your studies will affect human life someday.”

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