According to news reports, the deadly Sars-like virus that has spread in recent months from the Middle East to Germany, France and the UK, killing more than half of those it has infected, is a “threat to the entire world.” Since it emerged in Saudi Arabia in September last year, the new virus has spread to 50 people in eight countries and claimed 30 lives.
But it is not what it has done that is worrying – it is what it may do. Addressing the World Health Assembly in Geneva last week, Dr Chan said: “We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat. Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control. These are alarm bells and we must respond. The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single country can manage by itself.” Her words recall the panic that gripped the world when Sars – severe acute respiratory syndrome – appeared in 2003 and swept around the globe, infecting more than 8,000 people and causing 800 deaths. The WHO has called the new illness Mers – Middle East respiratory syndrome – reflecting its geographical origins, the report stated.
The new illness is caused, as Sars was, by a coronavirus, the agent responsible for most common colds. But this is no ordinary cold. In cases seen so far, the Mers virus causes fever, pneumonia and breathing difficulties – the worst-affected victims drown in their own secretions. Until now, all the known cases have occurred among patients with multiple health problems and low immunity.