SARS Virus Variant MERS Spreading from Middle East

MERS virus man on respiratorThirty-three people are dead from MERS, a coronavirus that the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling a “threat to the entire world”.  MERS, for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is a newly discovered virus that causes severe respiratory infection.There have been 58 laboratory-confirmed cases world-wide since the virus was discovered last September. Saudi Arabia claims about half of all cases of MERS. Some 30 people have died. Alarm bells are not over what has been MERS has done, but for what it has the potential to do.

These statistics were published by WHO on June 14. On June 15th, three new cases and another death were advised, rendering daily WHO updates instantly out of date. By the time this story is published, numbers will rise.

By June 17, Saudi Arabia has confirmed four more deaths.

The bug is a variant of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a virus that emerged in Asia over a decade ago.  That disease spread rapidly, infecting over 8,000 people and killing nearly 800 before mysteriously disappearing.

Last year, the first case of this new virus was recorded when a Saudi man developed the infection and died. It was several months before a second man was stricken. Concerns arose that transmission would exponentially increase during the 2012 Hajj, when millions of Muslims made pilgrimage to the Saudi holy city of Mecca, but no outbreak occurred and alarm over the unnamed virus (simply called “SARS-like”) quieted.

But it’s back in the news with two known cases of Mecca pilgrims falling fatally ill this year. In February, a British pilgrim died after infecting two family members.  In late May, a 66-year-old Tunisian man died after returning from a pilgrimage, and two of his children tested positive for the virus.

Last month two new cases were reported in France. Patient #1 had traveled to Dubai, became ill and was hospitalized in France, where his hospital roommate picked up the bug. Cases have since been reported in Tunisia, Qatar, the United Kingdom, Germany, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Tough talk and decisive action can be effective tools when dealing with public health.  So Margaret Chan, WHO secretary-general, grabbed a microphone and boldly announced that the coronavirus circulating mostly in the Middle East posed a “threat to the entire world.”

And the news media took the bait.  Is she overstating the threat?

Chan from WHO was directly involved with the Asian SARS outbreak. She’s experienced in corralling world attention to scary epidemics. A case of “the girl who cried wolf”? Or a prudent early warning system to incite sober attention to an unpredictable new virus with far-reaching influence?

She said, “We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat. Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control. These are alarm bells and we must respond. The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single country can manage by itself.”

The virus continues to spread into new countries, raising concern ahead of the Islamic pilgrimage periods which will occur this summer and autumn.

Most of the victims suffered from underlying medical conditions. The WHO says the virus spreads by means including interpersonal contact, and possibly via airborne transmission between people in closed quarters.  It doesn’t appear to spread easily in communities at large, but what about transmission between travelers in airports and planes?

Authorities believe initial transmission of the virus was from animal to human, but the animal source remains unidentified.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control noted the many unanswered questions about the Middle East-based virus, issuing a statement saying, “It is unusual to have such a degree of uncertainty at this stage in an outbreak.”

Image of man in oxygen mask from Shutterstock

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