Click to expand Photograph: Nicholas Europe/Getty Images
Yesterday, officials in Saudi Arabia announced that a woman had contracted the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, the first time a human case of the virus has been diagnosed in the kingdom. MERS-CoV belongs to the same coronavirus family as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and has infected 1,009 people in 11 countries since 2012. Of those, 751 people have died, according to the World Health Organization.
Although it is not clear how the woman contracted the virus, SARS and MERS-CoV are closely related, and experts believe that they could have been spread from animal to human — the coronavirus is transmitted between animals (mostly bats) and humans. Researchers and experts in the field around the world are now frantically working to detect new strains of the virus, particularly in the Middle East, where the majority of human cases have been found.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is currently investigating five MERS-CoV cases in Saudi Arabia, says that there has never been a confirmed case of MERS-CoV infection in the United States.
[A] total of 588 scientists are now trying to identify the next wave of SARS and MERS infections before it starts, with another 300 participating in a separate effort to develop new drugs and vaccines, according to Dr. Donald L. Kennedy, director of the United States Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Dr. Sudipto Banerjee, director of the Consortium for High Security Pandemic Preparedness, a group funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said he expects the Saudis to be the first country to announce new cases of the coronavirus. A disease like Ebola, he explained, may be more likely to develop in Saudi Arabia, which has few cases of the virus, than in countries farther away. The same is true for MERS-CoV: If it cannot be taken care of in Saudi Arabia, it will spread to other countries.