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Scientists scramble to understand a new virus similar to the one that caused SARS

The newly discovered virus that killed a Saudi Arabian man in June and is now causing life-threatening illness in a person from Qatar is similar to strains carried by bats, researchers reported Thursday.

Most of the bat strains do not infect people. Why the new strain does — and how it got into two unrelated people from the same part of the world months apart — is a mystery being urgently investigated by scientists in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.

The new bug is a coronavirus, a family that includes the agent of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which caused more than 8,000 infections and 900 deaths in 2003. The SARS coronavirus is also carried by bats.

“It is perplexing. But it is the very early days,” said Nick Phin, an epidemiologist at the British government’s Health Protection Agency who is helping investigate the case of the Qatari patient, who is in an intensive care unit of a London hospital.

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