Virologists are casting a worried eye on this year’s Islamic hajj to Saudi Arabia as they struggle with the enigmatic, deadly virus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which is striking hardest in the kingdom.
Little is known about the new pathogen, beyond the fact that it can be lethal by causing respiratory problems, pneumonia and kidney failure. It can be transmitted between humans, but unlike its cousin, the SARS virus, which sparked a scare a decade ago, it does not seem very contagious.
Even so, for any respiratory virus the mass gathering of the hajj provides a perfect opportunity to first spread at the two holiest Muslim shrines in the cities of Mecca and Medina, and then travel around the globe at jet speed as pilgrims return home.
Last year’s hajj drew 3.1 million people — and this year’s event likewise occurs in October, as the northern hemisphere slides into the season for coughs and sneezes.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan (陳馮富珍) sounded the alarm to ministers at the agency’s annual congress in May.
“We need to get the facts clear and get the appropriate advice to all your countries where your pilgrims want to go to Mecca. It is something quite urgent,” she said.
Experts point first and foremost to figuring out the basics of the MERS coronavirus.
Is it transmitted by contact — if a patient contaminates his home or workplace with droplets containing virus? Or is it done by breathing in virus from coughs and sneezes? What is the best treatment for it? What about a vaccine? Are there risks of viral mutation? And is there an animal host which acts as a reservoir for the virus?
The first recorded MERS death was in June last year in Saudi Arabia. The count has ticked up steadily, with a flurry last month and this month taking it to 77, the bulk of them in the kingdom.
Forty MERS patients have died to date, an extremely high rate of 52 percent, compared with 9 percent of the 8,273 recorded patients with SARS, which was centered on Asia.
However, the tally of people who have fallen ill with MERS, but have not been diagnosed with it, or who may have been infected, but not developed symptoms, is simply unknown.
As the fight for knowledge unfolds behind laboratory doors, the WHO is urging nations to monitor respiratory infections, especially among patients returning from the Middle East, but has held off calling for travel restrictions.
“This is really a new phenomenon that we’re dealing with,” WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security Keiji Fukuda told the International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control in Geneva last week.
While MERS centers on Saudi Arabia, there have been laboratory-confirmed cases originating in Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.