Deadly Middle East MERS respiratory virus strikes in US (Update)

by Kerry Sheridan
MERS-CoV particles as seen by negative stain electron microscopy. Virions contain characteristic club-like projections emanating from the viral membrane. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The first case of MERS, a dangerous respiratory virus that originated in the Middle East and has a high death rate, has been confirmed in the United States, officials said Friday.

The person infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is a health care provider who had traveled to Riyadh for work, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The name, gender and location of the patient were not disclosed.

"New diseases can be just a plane ride away," Anne Schuchat, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters.

The patient is being cared for in an Indiana hospital and is "isolated in stable condition," said Schuchat, adding that lab tests confirmed the infection Friday.

There is no cure for MERS-CoV, no medicine for treating it and no vaccine to prevent it.

The virus causes fever, breathing difficulties and can lead to pneumonia and death in some patients.

According to the CDC, 401 people in 12 countries have been confirmed to have MERS-CoV, including the US patient.

The latest death toll announced by Saudi health authorities is 107.

Hard to spread

Some cases have spread among family members and in a hospital setting, but sustained transmission among the general public is rare, the CDC said.

There appears to have been a rise in cases lately, but scientists have no indication that the virus is mutating or becoming more infectious, said Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University in New York.

"It has not evolved to become more capable of human to human transmission. It is the same virus we see in camels," he told AFP.

"There is concern over an uptick in cases but there are many explanations for that," Lipkin added. "One is that we are looking for it, and when you are looking for things, you find them."

Officials are trying to track down people who were near the patient, who on April 24 flew by plane from Riyadh to London, and then flew to Chicago, Illinois, where the patient boarded a public bus to Indiana.

However, the CDC declined to make public the name of the airline or any other details about the person's trip, and said that the Department of Homeland Security was working on locating people who traveled near the patient.

Coughing, fever

It was on April 27 that the patient began to experience shortness of breath, coughing and fever. The person was hospitalized a day later.

The incubation period is about five days between the time of the infection and the appearance of symptoms, said Schuchat.

Anyone who came in close contact with the patient within 14 days of infection could be at risk.

Officials declined to say how the patient became infected, or how many people came in contact with the patient.

It was also not known whether the patient had direct contact with camels during the Saudi trip.

Some research has suggested that camels are a likely source of the virus.

Schuchat said there was a low risk of MERS spreading to the general public, but added that the situation was considered "fluid."

She said the CDC is not currently recommending that people change their travel plans.

MERS is considered a deadlier cousin of the SARS virus that erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died.

However, Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease expert and adjunct professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University Medical Center, said that the MERS virus is not considered highly contagious.

"It can spread through the air, but it can't travel very far," he told AFP, describing MERS as much harder to spread than SARS, or even the flu.

The prognosis is worst among patients who have other health problems or who have compromised immune systems.

Related Stories

Malaysia quarantines 64 villagers over MERS virus

date Apr 17, 2014

Malaysia has quarantined 64 people in a southern village after one of its residents become the country's first person to die of a respiratory illness that is spreading from the Middle East, local media reported Thursday.

Recommended for you

'Ebola will return', veteran scientist warns

date 4 hours ago

Congolese expert Jean-Jacques Muyembe may be little known to the public, but he has been one of the world's top Ebola investigators since the first epidemic erupted in central Africa in 1976.

Score IDs patients with upper extremity DVT at low risk

date 19 hours ago

(HealthDay)—For patients with upper-extremity deep vein thrombosis (DVT), six easily available factors can be used to create a score that identifies those at low risk of adverse events during the first ...

Combined drug treatment combats kidney disease

date May 29, 2015

A recent discovery by drug researchers whereby coupling specific cell membrane receptors has altered kidney cell function has triggered a re-think of how to treat chronic kidney disease (CKD) more effectively.

Active substance targeting dreaded hospital germs

date May 29, 2015

In the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF), scientists have conducted clinical studies on an active substance against the dreaded hospital pathogen Staphylococcus aureus: a highly effective protein from bacteriophages ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.