Scientists See No Pandemic Risk For MERS-Coronavirus... Yet
July 5, 2013

Scientists See No Pandemic Risk For MERS-Coronavirus…Yet

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Despite the recent death of a man in the UK, scientists are reporting there is currently no risk of the Middle East respiratory syndrome-coronavirus (MERS-CoV) triggering a pandemic.

The BBC reports the latest MERS-CoV victim was a 49-year-old patient who passed away on June 28. He was transported from Qatar to St. Thomas' Hospital in London last September and was being treated for kidney failure and acute respiratory syndrome. The latest victim now brings the total death toll from the virus to 41.

Despite that revelation, researchers from the Institut Pasteur in Paris are convinced the coronavirus is less transmissible than the related severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which infected more than 8,000 people worldwide and had a nearly 10 percent fatality rate.

"Our analysis suggests that MERS-CoV does not yet have pandemic potential," they wrote in a study appearing in Friday's online early edition of The Lancet. "We recommend enhanced surveillance, active contact tracing, and vigorous searches for the MERS-CoV animal hosts and transmission routes to human beings."

Epidemiology professor Arnaud Fontanet and colleagues examined 55 MERS cases in search of "clusters" in which the virus had been passed on from one individual to another rather than only infecting the individual who had originally fallen ill, according to an AFP report.

Their goal was to discover the disease's "basic reproduction number" -- a statistic represented by the variable R that represents a pathogen's level of contagiousness. After analyzing MERS, Fontanet and his colleagues determined it had an R score of between 0.60 and 0.69. A virus is said to have epidemic potential when its R score exceeds one, and in comparison, SARS had an R score of 0.8 during its pre-pandemic phase, the news agency added.

"MERS-CoV has not spread as rapidly or as widely as SARS did," Fontanet told Bloomberg's Simeon Bennett via e-mail. "SARS's adaption to humans took just several months, whereas MERS-CoV has already been circulating more than a year in human populations without mutating into a pandemic form."

MERS, which can cause fever, coughing and respiratory problems and has developed into pneumonia in many patients, originated in the Middle East but has since spread to France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and the UK. That spread, along with its similarity to SARS, has caused some concern that it may become a pandemic.

Although SARS and MERS illnesses belong to the same coronavirus family, Fontanet said there is one major distinction between the two: "their use of different receptors to infect cells in human airways - a key factor in how easily a virus is passed from person to person," as quoted by Reuters' Kate Kelland.

Even so, Fontanet warned the status of MERS can "change swiftly if the virus mutates or if there are exceptional events such as mass gatherings, like the pilgrimage to Mecca."

Fontanet told AFP it was essential to determine the animal reservoir for the virus, as well as how it is transmitted to humans, as quickly as possible. "One of the main lessons from SARS is that if it had been confined at an early stage, this would have prevented it spreading globally," he said. "We have a window of opportunity, and it's now that we have to act, before it adapts to humans."