LONDON (Reuters) – A highly infectious new strain of E.coli bacteria is causing a deadly outbreak of food poisoning in Germany, scientists said on Thursday, with cases in Europe and the United States raising the alarm worldwide.
Experts in China, part of a global network of laboratories racing to understand the sickness which killed a 17th victim overnight, said they had found the bug carried genes that made it resistant to several classes of antibiotics.
The United Nations said the strain had not infected people before but some consumers, especially in Germany, said they were nervous about eating raw vegetables.
With around 1,500 people in Germany already ill in one of the worst recorded outbreaks of E.coli, Russia prompted international recriminations by banning imports of fresh vegetables from Europe and accusing Brussels of sowing chaos by failing to give enough information about the outbreak.
The precise source of the outbreak is unknown, but scientists say studies so far suggest it is highly likely to be contaminated vegetables or salads in Germany.
"This E.coli is a new strain of bacteria that is highly infectious and toxic," said the Chinese scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen city.
At the World Health Organization, the United Nations health watchdog, a spokeswoman said: "This strain has never been seen in an outbreak situation before."
E.coli infections can spread from person to person but only by what is known as the faecal-oral route. Health experts in Germany are advising strict hygiene regimes and recommending that consumers avoid eating raw salads and vegetables.
The outbreak is causing severe infections, mostly in female adults, and in a number of cases, serious complications affecting the blood and kidneys. Haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), an unusual complication of some types of E.coli, has been diagnosed in hundreds of the cases.
Russia's ban on Thursday on all raw vegetables from the European Union prompted cries of protest from the Polish and Dutch governments and a rebuke from the European Commission.
Moscow had already banned imports of vegetables from Germany and Spain because of the infections, which German officials originally blamed on contaminated cucumbers imported from Spain before backtracking and apologizing to Madrid.
Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia's consumer protection agency, said the deaths showed the "much-praised European sanitary legislation...does not work," Interfax news agency reported..
In Germany, some consumers were worried the disease could even spread by human contact. A high-profile church event in the city of Dresden, attended by 120,000 people, was not serving raw vegetables altogether on Thursday, according to ZDF television.
"I noticed that there were no raw vegetables, which I found calming..." one attendee was quoted as saying.
Another participant added: "I've thought about what I can eat and what I can risk. Yesterday I noticed someone saying: yuk, there's lettuce on top of this."
In Moscow, shops prepared to dump EU vegetables and consumers expressed a mixture of scorn and pride at the ban. But some disagreed strongly, saying the threat was exaggerated.
"I am not afraid of buying vegetables from any country here," said pensioner Vyacheslav Yegorov, carrying a shopping basket filled with grapes and fresh vegetables. "This thing will blow over and be forgotten tomorrow."
Spain is threatening legal action over the crisis. It wants compensation for its farmers, who say lost sales are costing them 200 million euros ($287 million) a week and could put 70,000 people out of work.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero accused the European Commission of being slow to act and said Germany "should know that it has an overall responsibility to other states in the European Union."
"We shall ask for very forthright explanations and...demand sufficient reparations," he told Spanish state radio.
A statement from Spain's presidential office said Germany would consider measures to compensate Spanish farmers for the loss of sales.
The statement said Chancellor Angela Merkel had told Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero by telephone that she regretted the damage suffered by Spanish farmers.
Poland, which along with France and Germany is one of Europe's biggest exporters of fruits and vegetables to Russia, said Moscow's move was "excessive compared to the danger," while the Netherlands, famous for its mass-production of salad crops such as lettuce and tomatoes, described it as a major blow.
"After the collapse of the German consumer market, sales to Russia are now also impossible," the Dutch junior minister for economic affairs, agriculture and innovation Henk Bleker said.
EU countries exported 594 million euros ($853 million) worth of vegetables to Russia last year while EU imports of vegetables from Russia were just 29 million euros, EU data show. It was not clear what proportion of that was raw.
German officials have said there is "still is no indication of a definable source" for the outbreak and scientists are working around the clock to try to pinpoint it.
The contamination source is highly like to be somewhere in Germany, since all cases of infection are there or linked to it.
The WHO said it had also been notified of cases in Austria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain. EU officials have said three cases have also been reported in the United States.
Almost all the cases are in people who had recently visited Germany. Many patients have been hospitalized, the WHO said, with several needing intensive care, including dialysis due to kidney complications.
Health experts say they are shocked by the outbreak, which is on a scale never seen before in the region. HUS frequently leads to kidney failure and can kill.
Whilst most strains of E.coli do not cause disease, some strains including this one are able to attach tightly to the wall of the intestines and produce toxins.
Stephen Smith, a microbiologist at Trinity College in Dublin said this strain appeared "to be a hybrid of two different E. coli types, which are nasty themselves."
The hybrid strain also contains the Shiga-like toxin from Enterohaemorrhagic E.coli, he said. This toxin binds to and damages kidney cells and can lead to potentially fatal HUS.
The Chinese scientists said the bacterium they identified was closely related to another E.coli strain called EAEC 55989 which has previously been found in Africa and is known to cause serious diarrhea.
(Additional reporting by Filip Kochan in Warsaw, Gilbert Kreijger in Amsterdam, Annika Breidthardt and Eric Kelsey in Berlin; Alissa de Carbonnel and Steven Gutterman in Moscow, Raquel Castillo in Madrid, Foo Yun Chee in Brussels and Barbara Lewis in Geneva; writing by Kate Kelland; editing by Maria Golovnina)