Dr. Margaret Chan, head of the international body since 2006, addressed the closing of the 66th session of the World Health Assembly with words of warning about what has been recently dubbed the “Middle East respiratory symptom coronavirus,” or MERS-CoV, calling it her greatest concern. “We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat,” Chan said of the disease.
Comparisons have been made between MERS-CoV and the SARS virus that threatened to become a pandemic in the early 2003. Both are members of the coronavirus family, a group of pathogens that ranges from the common cold to the life-threatening symptoms displayed during the SARS outbreak. During the 2003 epidemic, 775 patients died from infection, out of a total 8273 known cases. So far, MERS-CoV has killed 22 of the 44 known patients to contract the virus, including a French patient just yesterday.
“We do not know where the virus hides in nature,” Chen went on to say to the convened members. “We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these question, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention.” What is known at this point is that the virus appears to have originated in Saudi Arabia, since then spreading to citizens in the United Kingdom and France who had recently visited the Middle East.
The virus seems to have spread between two patients who shared a hospital room in France, prompting WHO officials to warn that it is likely that prolonged human contact can spur human-to-human transmission of the disease. The public health community typically defines “close contact” as spending a prolonged period of time in the same small, enclosed space with a person who is already infected. Fortunately, that means MERS-CoV appears to be less contagious than the SARS virus.
However, Chan warned against taking the virus lightly with so little known. “The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself,” Chan said, referring to MERS-CoV by its original title. “The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world. As the Chair of committee A succinctly stated: this virus is something that can kill us.” Chan called upon the delegates to the Assembly to “bring together the assets of the entire world” to address the virus.
To facilitate that, the WHO announced joint missions between Saudi Arabia and Tunisia to “gather all the facts needed to conduct a proper risk assessment.” Saudi Arabia has also separately invited scientists from the United States and Canada to research the strain further to help answer some of the many questions still remaining about how the disease functions.