WHO: E. coli outbreak caused by new strain

By STAFF | June 2, 2011 | 5:29 AM EDT

Chief of the laboratory in research into the Escherichia Coli bacterium at the Brno research institute Pavel Alexa, left, and his assistant Gabriela Glocknerova, right, take samples from a cucumber for a molecular biological test in Brno, Czech Republic, Wednesday, June 1, 2011. The ongoing outbreak of E. coli has claimed 16 people and around 1500 infected across Europe. The laboratory is testing the vegetables for the Czech market. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization says the E. coli strain responsible for the deadly outbreak in Europe is a new bacteria that has never been seen before.

The agency says Thursday that preliminary genetic sequencing suggests the strain is a mutant form of two different E. coli bacterium, with lethal genes that could explain why the Europe-wide outbreak appears to be so massive and dangerous.

Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at the World Health Organization, said "this is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before." She added that the new strain has "various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing."

So far, the mutant E. coli strain has killed 17 people in Germany, and sickened more than 1,500 others, including 470 who have developed a rare kidney failure complication.