Background: An epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has been associated with an outbreak of atypical pneumonia originating in Guangdong Province, People's Republic of China. We aimed to identify the causative agent in the Guangdong outbreak and describe the emergence and spread of the disease within the province.
Methods: We analysed epidemiological information and collected serum and nasopharyngeal aspirates from patients with SARS in Guangdong in mid-February, 2003. We did virus isolation, serological tests, and molecular assays to identify the causative agent.
Findings: SARS had been circulating in other cities of Guangdong Province for about 2 months before causing a major outbreak in Guangzhou, the province's capital. A novel coronavirus, SARS coronavirus (CoV), was isolated from specimens from three patients with SARS. Viral antigens were also directly detected in nasopharyngeal aspirates from these patients. 48 of 55 (87%) patients had antibodies to SARS CoV in their convalescent sera. Genetic analysis showed that the SARS CoV isolates from Guangzhou shared the same origin with those in other countries, and had a phylogenetic pathway that matched the spread of SARS to the other parts of the world.
Interpretation: SARS CoV is the infectious agent responsible for the epidemic outbreak of SARS in Guangdong. The virus isolated from patients in Guangdong is the prototype of the SARS CoV in other regions and countries.