MERS: Deadly Virus from the Middle East Spreading Quickly

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nCoV-1 Cynthia Goldsmith Maureen Metcalfe Azaibi Tamin

The MERS Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus has an extremely high fatality rate. Photo by: Cynthia Goldsmith Maureen Metcalfe Azaibi Tamin

A lethal virus has emerged from the Arabian Peninsula and it’s striking fear in the hearts of public health officials throughout the world.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus materialized out of nowhere last summer, and has since infected at least 60 individuals -mostly in the Middle East.  Though this sounds like a relatively small number, apparently 65% of those infected die, and the virus appears to rapidly spread from person to person with minimal contact.  World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margareth Chan recently stated this is an immediate threat to the entire world.

Another Coronavirus

Like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), MERS is novel member of the coronavirus family.  These are large RNA viruses consisting of a spike-lined outer membrane (envelope) and an inner armored shell (protein capsid) that houses instructions for the virus.  The name comes from the spiked, crown-like appearance of these virions under the electron microscope. We find corona viruses throughout all mammals; they generally impact the upper respiratory tract. Besides SARS and MERS, several tamer members of this group are known to cause flu-like symptoms in humans.

Signs of MERS Infection

MERS has a long incubation period – it may simmer up to 2 weeks, with symptoms usually occurring within 10 days of transmission.  Signs and symptoms start out mild (cough, fever, and malaise) then progress over days to renal disease and pneumonia. So far more men have been infected, but all age groups are susceptible. Those with underlying medical conditions are at even more risk for severe illness.

MERS vs. SARS

Both SARS and MERS are novel emerging coronaviruses with high rates of person-to-person transmission.  SARS emerged from Southern China in November of 2002, and became a global threat by March 2003.  Of the 8,100 that became sick, 8% progressed to pneumonia and died. By 2004 the outbreak was over and no new cases were reported. The source of SARS appears to be the consumption of wild civet cats in China.

Of those with a diagnosis of MERS, thus far, 60% have progressed to pneumonia and renal problems before death. Researchers still do not know the source of MERS, but this novel coronavirus appears to be related to virus species that infect bats.

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