Scientists believe that they have found the virus responsible for the mysterious illness that has sickened hundreds of people worldwide and are perfecting a test to diagnose it, the World Health Organization announced Saturday.
The steps, by the University of Hong Kong, are considered important in slowing the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and bringing scientists closer to determining how to treat it.
The progress comes less than a week after WHO officials pulled together findings of 11 laboratories around the world in what was described as an unprecedented collaboration to hunt down the disease.
"We can be relatively sure that we have now found the causative agent," said Dr. Klaus Stohr, a WHO virologist who is coordinating the global laboratory network.
The virus, isolated from the lung tissue of a patient who died, is the basis for the diagnostic test, which Stohr said could be available to labs by the end of next week and in the hands of hospital doctors shortly afterward.
The test would make it possible for doctors to quickly identify and isolate patients with the new disease.
Development of the diagnostic test was announced Friday, but experts were cautious because the results had not been confirmed. By Saturday its accuracy had been verified in eight more patients and more details were released.
SARS has stricken 386 people worldwide in the last three weeks, 11 of whom have died, according to WHO figures. Experts suspect that it is linked to an earlier outbreak of an unidentified disease in China, where officials say there have been 305 cases and five deaths. Two of the recent deaths were in Canada, where officials said Saturday that they were investigating a third death.
Hong Kong remains the most seriously affected area, with more than half the total cases. Vietnam and Singapore have also been hit hard. The United States has had 22 suspected cases, according to the WHO.
Singapore said it would empty one of its main hospitals and dedicate it to coping with the disease.