Tracking the spread of sickness and disease

Deadly Middle Eastern Coronavirus Quickly Becoming a Global Threat

By: Jennifer Madison. June 6, 2013

In recent weeks, concern regarding the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (also known as MERS-CoV) has been growing. In early June, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) reported that the incubation period for this virus is much longer than expected. On top of that, since September 2012 there have been over fifty confirmed cases of this virulent strain of coronavirus.

However, little is known about the behaviors of this virus, other than the fact that it originates in the Middle East, often infecting travelers who bring the virus back to their country of origin. In fact, it is by this means that the virus broke out recently in France. Because of the medical world’s general lack of understanding of MERS-CoV—in regards to its transmission methods, incubation period, effects on the body, and so on—the spread of this virus is now becoming a global concern.

Pandemic fears

Fears of a pandemic are becoming so great that Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization, recently gave an address at the 66th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland addressing MERS-CoV.

“We do not know where the virus hides in nature," Dr. Chan said during an impassioned speech in May. "We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond.”

Bear in mind that this level of alarm is coming from a person who deals with disease and deadly viruses every single day; she has quite literally seen it all. Dr. Chan’s speech highlights the need for global action and it is clear that the World Health Organization (WHO) views this outbreak as a key priority.

Elusive as MERS-CoV appears, there are some known factors. Most importantly, the survival rate of known cases currently hovers around 50%, with around 23 of the total reported cases being fatal. It’s also understood that, regardless of the mechanism, the virus can quickly spread from person to person. This fact was made clear when a traveler came from Saudi Arabia to France and infected a number of other people during his treatment for coronavirus. Symptoms can initially mimic a severe case of a common stomach virus, but then move on to include breathing problems and potentially bring on kidney failure and pneumonia.

Threat to the United States

Because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus, many people in the U.S. are, understandably, concerned about a possible threat. As with any developed country, the U.S. has procedures in place to deal with a pandemic outbreak. Makeshift treatment centers are very often set up, transforming existing substance abuse, emergency medical and mental health facilities into places of refuge. For example, there are a number of alcohol and drug abuse centers in Utah which could serve as the ideal locations to treat infected people, due to their medical supplies, beds for the sick, and equipment.

So, regardless of where you live in the continental US, you should have access to treatment and help in case the coronavirus makes the jump stateside. The CDC is also an excellent resource for gaining more information of plans of action in emergency pandemic situations. Remember, though, that this situation is still developing and in its early stages, meaning there is no need for undue alarm or panic. Awareness of MERS-CoV is a much more important endeavor.

Perhaps the most telling quote from Dr. Chan's recent speech in Geneva was her emphasis on the fact that we must all work together to fight this virus. “The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself," she said. "The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world.” Strong words, certainly, but also a stark warning: the coronavirus poses a significant risk—on a global scale.

Therefore, the WHO will likely move quickly in the coming weeks to formulate a plan of attack (which could include immunization) for the coronavirus. In addition, round-the-clock research is already underway from elite institutions (like Johns Hopkins here in the U.S.) to try to prevent a pandemic and potential global disaster.