A sudden rise in the cases of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which first appeared in Saudi Arabia two years ago, is now causing concern across the rest of the world. The number of cases has doubled in just one month, and around 30% of those infected by the virus have died.
This week, Nature Middle East released a comprehensive and in-depth Special on the emerging virus, exploring how the novel coronavirus was first discovered in a small laboratory in Saudi Arabia, to efforts to contain the spread of the virus and how likely it is to become an epidemic.
"With no vaccines or antivirals, reminiscent of the SARS tragedy, there is a growing fear of a new viral pandemic," says Islam Hussein, a researcher and virologist at MIT, Massachusetts.
The virus' transmission modes and its degree of adaptability remain largely mysterious, but its potential to kill is certain - with 193 deaths reported worldwide, the majority over a few months. A Nature Middle East exclusive infograph shows the extent of the viral contagion and reach, comparing its high fatality record with those of H1N1 and SARS.
Professionals in the region have played down the likelihood of an imminent danger of a MERS epidemic even in countries, like Egypt, with a poor history of viral control. However the region is still vulnerable, especially with the Hajj and Ummrah seasons approaching, when millions from around the world head to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage.
"Educating pilgrims to Mecca about the disease seems to be the only current viable option. Exercising caution, good personal hygiene and wearing masks are all constructive measures," adds Islam, who suggests that thermal scanners at airports would not be an effective measure to curb the spread of the disease.
Researchers are scrambling for an antiviral that can control the coronavirus, hoping to have a line of defence should it mutate to become more dangerous. While they have identified several antibodies and a molecule that can kill the coronavirus, producing a vaccine is a long and expensive process.
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