No Plans for SARS Quarantine in US, Experts Tell Senate Panel

By Steve Brown | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - No one in the United States has been quarantined for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), nor is there any plan to do so at this time, experts testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Monday.

President Bush signed an executive order on Friday adding SARS, the Asian super-virus, to the list of quarantinable diseases under the Public Health Service Act.

"What the executive order does is give us the authority to quarantine for SARS in the same way that we can quarantine for other communicable diseases like cholera," Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said.

"So it's just simply adding SARS to a list of diseases that already, if necessary, we can take action to prevent spread within the community. So it is a precaution, a 'just-in-case' kind of executive order," she said

Gerberding told senators that as of April 3, 2,300 probable or suspected SARS cases had been reported worldwide to the World Health Organization (WHO) from 16 countries in the six weeks since the disease was discovered. These include 115 reported in America from 29 states. Thus far, 79 patients have died, but none in the U.S.

While cases of SARS continue to be reported from around the world, Gerberding said the disease is still primarily limited to travelers to Hong Kong, Hanoi, Singapore and mainland China; to health care workers who have treated SARS patients; and to people in close contact with SARS patients.

Based on available knowledge to date, she said the major mode of transmission is through droplet spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, adding: "We are concerned about the possibility of airborne transmission and also the possibility that objects that became contaminated in the environment could serve as modes of spread.

"Of the 115 reported suspected cases among U.S. residents, 109 have traveled to mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore or Hanoi, Vietnam, four had household contact with a suspected case, and two are health care workers who provided medical care to a suspected case," Gerberding said.

SARS is a "novel coronavirus," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) told the senators.

Coronaviruses are best known as one of the causes of the common cold, he explained. However, they are common to both humans and animals, and research into vaccines developed for animals may prove useful in finding a SARS vaccine, according to Fauci.

"The fact that it (an inactive SARS virus) grows in monkey cells gives us optimism - though we haven't proven it yet - that a primate model might be a good model to test the vaccine," Fauci said, noting that the NIH, the CDC and other specialists around the globe are working on a vaccine.

One initial impediment in tracing SARS was the lack of openness by the Chinese government, said David Heymann, executive director of Communicable Diseases with the WHO. Because health care had been delegated to provincial levels of government in China, the national government lacked any authority to take action to try to control infectious diseases. But Heymann assured senators that China was now "a full global partner in this outbreak investigation."

"It changed one week ago when China instituted a national reporting system for SARS and some other infectious diseases, requiring provinces to report this information to Beijing. This information is now being made available to us," Heymann said. "So we see that this global response, although it has been long in coming, has included a partner that was reticent at the start."

Heymann said he hoped that as global response to SARS continues and the WHO revises international health regulations, "we will be able to require that all countries work closely when there is a disease of international importance."

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