Passengers wearing masks to prevent contracting Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) walk past a thermal imaging camera (unseen) at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, June 2, 2015.
South Korea risks a long battle with MERS unless it is transparent, works with international virus-hunters and avoids mistakes made by Saudi Arabia, where the killer disease took hold after emerging in 2012.
Virology and infectious disease specialists fought for almost two years to persuade secretive Saudi authorities to share scientific data that may have helped them halt the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) there more swiftly.
Controlling the South Korean outbreak — which has already infected some 30 people, killing two so far — will require a level of openness that Saudi Arabia has only now begun to adopt.
“The first case of MERS was reported almost three years ago, and yet the disease remains a serious health threat to the global community, with many basic questions … unanswered,” said Alimuddin Zumla, a University College London professor of infectious diseases and international health who co-wrote an analysis of the MERS situation in The Lancet on Wednesday.
Zumla told Reuters he had already seen worrying signs in Seoul — that the response is slow and that health officials are not keen on external help. He urged authorities there to open up, share data and allow international specialists in to help.
“We need more global attention and more international collaboration. They should get a multi-disciplinary team over to help sequence the (genes of) the virus and see if it’s becoming more virulent. They should do that as soon as possible.”
Ben Neumann, a virologist at Britain’s Reading University, noted that new MERS cases in Saudi Arabia had dropped from scores a week in April and May 2014 to barely a handful now, coinciding with a more open and collaborative approach.
“As the Saudis have (now) shown, an active, transparent response is not just good public health, it is good public policy,” he told Reuters.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded 1,161 MERS cases globally, including 436 deaths, the vast majority in the Middle East. There is no cure or vaccine against the disease.
Unknown in humans until 2012, MERS infection is caused by a coronavirus from the same family as the one that caused SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in 2002-2003 and killed around 800 people worldwide.
MERS has a much higher death rate — 38 percent, according to WHO figures — but also spreads far less swiftly than SARS from person to person, making it less of a threat for now.
Yet further international spread of MERS is almost inevitable, experts say, with daily international travel helping the virus criss-cross the world.
“I believe Korea is the twenty-fifth country to have a MERS case, and it is not likely to be the last,” Neumann said.
Stanley Perlman, a professor at the University of Iowa in the United States, warned that the virus, like so many of its cousins, was changing all the time and could mutate to become more easily transmissible between people.
“Although interhuman transmission is still inefficient, health authorities, governments and the research community should be prepared for the emergence of a MERS coronavirus with increased capacity for transmission and pandemic potential,” he wrote in the Lancet.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)