The new scary virus plague creeping into the media is the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV). The MacDoctor thinks that virologists are not happy unless they have at least one nasty virus that they can panic about.
The tone of recent journal articles is sliding into apocalypse mode with headlines like “Deadly Mers virus ‘threat to entire world’“; “New MERS virus spreads easily, deadlier than SARS” and todays headline “Experts meet in effort to halt spread of killer virus“. In the interest of injecting some sensible observation into the panic, the MacDoctor offers this summary:
What we actually know:
- MERS-CoV is a coronavirus similar to virus that caused SARS. Coronaviruses normally just give humans a cold, but, occasionally, like SARS, they can be more vicious. Like SARS, this coronavirus appear to have originated in bats.
- MERS-CoV can pass from human to human, like SARS.
- The incubation period appears to be no earlier than 5 days and no later than 12 days.
- All cases so far are Middle Eastern, mostly Saudi Arabian, or have been in direct contact with infected visitors from the Middle East.
- Since the first case was described in April 2012, more than a year ago, there have been 68 cases and 38 deaths to date.
What we may surmise:
- We do not know if the virus spreads “easily”. Quite the contrary, there is evidence that it does not spread easily at all. Those who acquired the virus by documented human to human spread were in very close contact with the infected source (mostly hospital workers). One of the european patients had 20 contacts prior to hospital admission. None of them had the virus. The fact that the virus remains relatively contained in the middle east would suggest that it, like SARS, is not easily transmissible at all. If the infectivity was high, we would already be dealing with a pandemic.
- We do not know if this virus is worse than SARS. We only know that the current mortality of people presenting with the severe respiratory illness is a disturbing 56%. At least two people who were contacts were found to have the virus but suffered only mild cold symptoms. This, combined with a probably moderate to low infectivity rate, suggests there may be quite a large pool of cases in Saudi that are having normal cold symptoms. Thus the mortality rate may be substantially lower overall (much like swine flu, where the eventual mortality rate was similar to normal flu)
The MacDoctor notes that both the CDC and the WHO bury news of MERS-CoV deep in their websites, so, despite sensational headlines of MERS-CoV being a “threat to the whole world” and “the world’s single biggest threat to public health”, it does not seem to be panicking the bureaucrats yet. CDC have not yet asked anyone to start looking for a vaccine. The “emergency meeting” seems to be mostly a three day talkfest on what to do with the muslim pilgrims visiting Mecca. If they suggest quarantining everyone in internment camps for 2 weeks, the MacDoctor might start to feel nervous.Until then, we can view articles like the ones quoted with a degree of equanimity.