June 3, 2013 1:46 pm
Updated: June 3, 2013 2:20 pm

The novel coronavirus: 9 things you should know about MERS

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TORONTO – The World Health Organization is calling it “a threat to the entire world.”

And with good reason: the new SARS-like virus, named MERS-CoV, has now seeped into a handful of European nations, with 51 lab-confirmed cases, and 30 deaths.

It’s been over a year since the first few cases of the disease were identified in Amman, Jordan. In the past few weeks, it’s gained in speed: over the weekend, three more people died from the new respiratory virus.

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The first cases appeared in Jordan and Saudi Arabia

In April 2012, the first cluster of two cases – both fatal – tested positive for the coronavirus in Amman, Jordan. By October 2012, a second cluster that included four family members was identified. In that case, two people died, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

By October 2010, another family of four was diagnosed with coronavirus. Two people died.

So far, most cases appear to be men between 24 and 94 years old.

Read more: 2 new disease – H7N9 and coronavirus – could both spark global outbreaks

The coronavirus has made its way to 10 countries

France, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Germany, Pakistan, United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates have all had between one and 38 cases of coronavirus so far. This weekend, Italy’s health ministry said it had three people being treated for the deadly virus.

Cases of coronavirus are connected to the Middle East

Each of these incidents in Europe is tied to visits to the Middle East. In Italy, for example, three patients are in hospital in Tuscany – a 45-year-old man had just returned from a 40-day visit to Jordan. The others included a young child and colleague, both related to the man.

Read more: Man who returned from Jordan is Italy’s 1st confirmed case of MERS virus

“All of the European cases have had a direct or indirect connection to the Middle East,” the WHO said in a May 17 statement.

The coronavirus can transmit from person to person

While it’s unclear how the virus is spreading from person to person, experts say the clusters of family members spreading the virus confirm that human-to-human transmission exists.

It “occurred in at least some of these clusters; however, the exact mode of transmission is unknown,” the WHO said in its updates. MERS has even made its way into some Saudi hospitals spreading to patients. The number of cases in that country sits at 38.

Virologists have speculated that the coronavirus could take off with just a handful of superspreaders – patients in hospital who could transmit the disease to dozens of others.

But other experts weighing in have said that it seems the infection is “very difficult to acquire.”

Its deadliness lies in its mystery

On May 27, the Who director-general Margaret Chain called MERS a “threat to the whole world” because of too many unknown variables. She called it her “greatest concern” in the world’s health situation.

“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,” she said.

“We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these question, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond.”

Read her full speech to the World Health Assembly here.

It’s similar to SARS

This year, the world reflected on the 10 year anniversary or SARS, which brought the international health community to its knees. SARS ultimately claimed 900 lives worldwide and another 8,500 people became infected. That’s about a 10 per cent rate of fatality. It’s unknown how deadly the MERS virus is.

Read more: SARS 10 years later: Doctors monitoring new coronavirus

Both SARS and MERS come from the coronavirus family – they both target the respiratory system, and they’re both virulent illnesses. They’re marked by spread of large droplets of moisture, such as someone coughing or sneezing nearby or picking up droplets from surfaces like table tops.

Of those confirmed cases, MERS appears to present like a cold – some pneumonia, a fever, chest pain, diarrhea and trouble breathing are just some of the string of symptoms patients share.

French doctors warned that those with the disease should be quarantined for at least 12 days to avoid spreading the virus.

Read more: French doctors say incubation for MERS virus may be 12 days, recommend longer quarantines

Canadian fingerprints are on coronavirus research

Last month, Canadian infectious disease expert Dr. Allison McGeer was recruited by the Saudi Arabian kingdom to investigate the coronavirus outbreak.

McGeer is head of infection control at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and spearheaded response to the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Read more: Saudis bring in outside help on coronavirus, including Toronto SARS expert

McGeer told the Canadian Press that a report is on its way, but that the outbreak is complex. Pulling together what’s known about the disease is taking time, she said.

Canadians should ‘practice usual precautions’ when travelling to the Middle East

On its page of travel advisories, the Public Health Agency of Canada said on May 29 that Canadians should practice usual safety precautions when travelling to the Middle East. It placed the coronavirus outbreak on a level 1 concern (the fourth level is the highest).

“There continues to be no travel restrictions as the risk to travellers remains low,” the advisory says.

Read the full advisory here.

There is no vaccine or treatment to cure MERS-CoV

Right now, there is no vaccine or treatment for the novel coronavirus.

Labs around the world are working on developing animal models for the new coronavirus. This could help in studying how a virus causes disease and to test potential tools to combat the virus.

Read more: Scientists devise drug cocktail for coronavirus

Read more about MERS-CoV on the CDC‘s website and on the WHO‘s.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

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