Skip to main content

Why MERS virus is so scary

By Laurie Garrett, Special to CNN
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Sun June 2, 2013
MERS-CoV is a coronavirus, like the one shown above, so-called because it looks like it's surrounded by a crown, or corona.
MERS-CoV is a coronavirus, like the one shown above, so-called because it looks like it's surrounded by a crown, or corona.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The head of WHO said MERS CoV virus found in Saudi Arabia threatens "the entire world"
  • Laurie Garrett: It's alarming that of 49 cases, 27 -- that's 52% -- have died
  • Garrett: The virus related to SARS, and scientists worry it could spread as fast
  • MERS emerged in a difficult region, she says, and threatens Syrian refugees

Editor's note: Laurie Garrett is senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

(CNN) -- The head of the World Health Organization warned the world this week of a new virus, awkwardly dubbed MERS-CoV, found in Saudi Arabia.

"Looking at the overall global situation, my greatest concern right now is the novel coronavirus," Margaret Chan said, calling it "a threat to the entire world."

"We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat," the director general said in her closing speech to the 66th session of the World Health Assembly. "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 affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself."

Laurie Garrett
Laurie Garrett

With just 49 cases of the new disease reported since June 2012, it may seem puzzling that Chan named the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus -- MERS CoV or MERS for short -- the greatest threat to world health today.

Your questions about MERS, answered

But Hong Kong-born Chan can be forgiven a strong reaction. After all, she managed the response to SARS there in 2003, and MERS is a close genetic cousin. At least 8,000 people in 30 countries contracted SARS in 2003; 774 died of the disease.

No doubt her sense of urgency also stems from the apparently high mortality rate: To date, 27 of the 49 people who have caught the disease have perished, or 52%. Although the majority of illnesses have been in the Saudi Arabia, cases have emerged in seven countries.

Similarities between the SARS and MERS viruses are more than genetic. Both cause acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, and trigger reactions in the human immune system that are so severe, organs throughout the body are devastated -- collateral damage in an overly vigorous battle with the microbes. Both viruses spread between people through close contact, putting family caregivers and health care workers at risk for infection.

Growing alarm over new virus
MERS virus linked to Middle East
Tracking a deadly virus

In April, for example, according to a report in the British medical journal The Lancet, a French man who had traveled to Dubai fell ill with the disease in France, although it wasn't diagnosed immediately. Another patient who shared the first man's hospital room caught the disease. The first man died on May 28; the second remains in intensive care.

5 things to know about MERS

A new report in the New England Journal of Medicine offers a glimpse of the depth of mystery shrouding MERS. A team of Saudi Ministry of Health researchers describe a November outbreak in a Riyadh urban household of 28 extended family members, four of whom -- all men -- contracted MERS.

The cluster of cases in this family presents a list of mysteries: Why were all the sick and dead men? With 28 people in this three-building urban household, why were these four infected, and the other 24 spared? The family lived in a big city, had no animals, ate supermarket food and had jobs that offered no contact with the virus. How did they catch MERS?

Until researchers can determine what animal is the natural host of the virus, and how MERS spreads from the host to humans, each new outbreak is dangerous and mysterious. The science is still unfolding.

Meanwhile, the WHO and world health community watch, anxiously, recalling how swiftly the SARS outbreak that started in southern China in December 2002 exploded a month later across Asia, Canada, and on, eventually hitting 30 countries.

Sadly, resources for confronting such outbreaks have decreased since the 2008 financial crisis, and MERS has emerged in one of the most difficult regions in the world. Were the virus to reach any of the refugee camps that house more than 2 million Syrian refugees, a genuine pandemic could ensue.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Laurie Garrett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT