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. “We conclude that a slowly growing epidemic is underway,” they said, adding that it is not yet clear whether transmission is self-sustaining from human to human. A second, separate study concluded that it is not. Still, the WHO found that when the virus pops up in communities,clusters of illness develop in families and then it spreads in health-care facilities when a sick person is admitted.
The behavior of this virus is a matter of concern to the world. Much is unknown, and much will depend on Saudi Arabia, which has reported a steady stream of cases, including 53 of the deaths so far. There are rumblings of worry among public health experts about the lack of good research coming from Saudi Arabia, with its traditions of isolation and opacity.
A decade ago, the SARS epidemic shocked Chinese leaders into realizing that transparency was essential for battling a public health crisis. China has been far more open with the outbreak of H7N9 avian flu this year. The MERS coronavirus could mutate and pose a threat far beyond the Middle East. Before that moment, Saudi Arabia ought to learn a lesson from China and do everything it can to make sure the world’s wisdom and experience are brought to bear on this spiky blob.