Hajj pilgrims not at risk for SARS-like virus, official says

Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims move around the Kaaba, seen at center, inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 3, 2011. Muslims from across the world descended on the holy city of Mecca ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, many of them with prayers for a peaceful resolution to the wave of uprisings roiling the Arab world.
AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Saudi Arabia's health minister says a new respiratory virus related to SARS that has infected two people does not pose a threat to the more than 1 million Muslims set to embark on the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the kingdom.

Previously Saudi officials had advised as a precautionary measure that pilgrims should keep their hands clean and wear masks in crowded places.

Abdullah al-Rabeeah said Monday the virus has so far been contained.

The germ is a coronavirus, from a family of viruses that cause the common cold as well as SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed some 800 people, mostly in Asia, in a 2003 epidemic.

Global health officials suspect two victims from the Middle East may have caught it from animals and the virus is "not easily transmitted from person to person."

One patient was a Saudi Arabian man who died several months ago while the other is a Qatari national who traveled to Saudi Arabia before falling ill and is currently in critical but stable condition in a London hospital.

Officials said the virus is closely linked to bat viruses, but camels, sheep or goats may also be implicated pending further analysis.

The World Health Organization issued a global alert asking doctors to be on guard for any potential cases of the new virus, which also causes kidney failure.