MERS virus provides another reason for Saudi Arabia to be transparent.
SLOWLY OVER the past year, a novel respiratory virus has claimed victims in the Middle East, primarily in Saudi Arabia. It comes from a species known as coronavirus, which, through an electronic microscope, looks like a spiky blob. The virus has been named Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), of the 157 laboratory-confirmed cases since September 2012, 66 people have died.
It is not uncommon for humans and animals to exchange dangerous pathogens. In the past decade, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, also a coronavirus, rose out of China, perhaps from bats; the swine flu pandemic originated in Mexico; and avian flu has remained an ever-present threat to humans. What’s most important about these diseases is whether they are transmissible from human to human. It turned out that SARS and swine flu spread quickly among people.
Transfer from animals is also suspected in MERS; reports have pointed to bats and camels as possible sources. But there is a big puzzle: Many of the people who came down with MERS were not exposed to bats or camels. So far, close contact between humans seems to provide some means of transmission, although it is still not clear how readily. The fear is that if the virus did become easily transmissible, it could spread fast and be fatal to many.
A study published this month in the Lancet Infectious Diseases carried some unsettling findings about MERS. The study, by an international team, suggested that many cases are being missed, perhaps because they are not severe. The researchers estimated that 62 percent of the cases with human symptoms may not have been diagnosed as MERS.