MERS coronavirus: What you need to know

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, started spreading from Saudi Arabia, and global health officials believe it has pandemic potential.

WHO, the World Health Organization, said the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS CoV, has the potential to spread across the globe and cause a pandemic.

Here's what we know so far about the disease.

Infections as of Dec. 27170
Deaths as of Dec. 2772
MortalityNearly 60 percent of those infected die
No. of cases / No. of deaths

France: 2 / 1
Italy: 1 / 0
Jordan: 2 / 2
Kuwait: 2 / 0
Oman: 2 / 2
Qatar: 10 / 5
Saudi Arabia: 134 / 56
Tunisia: 3 / 1
United Arab Emirates: 9 / 2
United Kingdom: 3 / 2

Source: CDC WHO


Latest developments:

  • Dec. 27: Four new cases in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, including one death.
  • Nov. 15-Dec. 2: MERS patients in Oman and the United Arab Emirates died. Kuwait reports its first case. Three more cases in Saudi Arabia are reported, two of whom died, and two cases in Qatar, possibly contracted from a herd of 14 camels that tested positive for MERS. Three new cases were confirmed in the UAE.
  • Nov. 10: Oman's first MERS patient died of lung failure.
  • Oct. 30: The first case of MERS is reported in Oman.
  • Aug. 24: Scientists found the MERS virus in a bat in Saudi Arabia, an exact match to the first known human case. The discovery doesn't mean bats are the direct culprit of spreading the disease.
  • July 5: The World Health Organization forms an emergency committee of international experts to prepare for a possible worsening of the coronavirus.

MERS' center: Saudi Arabia

  • MERS to date is concentrated in Saudi Arabia, which has the highest infection and death rates.
  • The virus first appeared in Saudi Arabia in June 2012 and was renamed as a coronavirus in September 2012.
  • In early May, 13 MERS infections were linked to dialysis patients at a hospital in eastern Saudi Arabia, according to Scientific American.
  • Scientists believe the current MERS virus is a distant relative of a fatal SARS-like coronavirus that emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
  • About 75 percent of MERS patients in Saudi Arabia are men, most of whom have major chronic conditions, the WHO said.
  • In late May, the WHO scolded Saudi Arabia for not revealing more information about MERS-related viruses to world health officials, Scientific American said. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said Middle Eastern countries' lack of information is "inexcusable" in the face of a potential global pandemic.

Symptoms and warnings

  • Flu-like symptoms, respiratory and lung infections, coughing, fever, shortness of breath and pneumonia.
  • French scientists warn that those with underlying medical conditions  — especially respiratory ailments — could be at a greater risk.

How it started

  • As with SARS, which killed almost 800 people in 2003, scientists believe MERS was spread to humans through an animal, possibly a bat or a camel, according to the Financial Times.

How it spreads

MERS could become a global pandemic: MERS-CoV particles as seen by negative stain electron microscopy. Virions contain characteristic club-like projections emanating from the viral membrane.CDC: Cynthia Goldsmith, Maureen Metcalfe, Azaibi Tamin, File

MERS-CoV particles

  • Person to person
  • Through the air via respiratory droplets, leaving health care providers especially susceptible
  • Scientists believe infected travelers brought it from the Middle East to Europe (Italy, France)

How to avoid getting it

  • Practice good personal hygiene: Wash hands frequently and cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • If you have symptoms or come in contact with someone who has the flu, follow the CDC's advice to prevent its spread. And see a doctor as soon as you feel sick.

How to treat it

  • There is no treatment yet, though the CDC is discussing developing a vaccine.
  • If you're experiencing symptoms, see your doctor.
  • MERS is resistant to anti-flu drugs like Tamiflu.

What's being done to stanch it

  • While no vaccine exists yet, progress has been made on an anti-viral drug that stops infections, the journal "Scientific Reports" said in May.
  • Although no U.S. cases have been reported, the Centers for Disease Control developed tests to identify MERS and gave testing kits to state health departments.

Why health officials are increasingly concerned

  • They know very little about MERS.
  • As the disease spreads, scientists worry it could continue to mutate and become more transmittable, according to the WHO.
  • They believe the disease's long incubation period of 7-12 days could allow infected people to continue traveling before they fall ill, more easily passing on the disease, according to the AP.
  • Millions of Ramadan pilgrims visited Saudi Arabia and other areas of the Middle East in July, but fears it would spread widely were unfounded.

What about travel

  • The CDC isn't advising restrictions on travel, even to the Arabian peninsula and neighboring countries.

Related: Coronavirus or MERS? Deadly virus has identity crisis

For more information:
WHO and CDC advisories

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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