* Middle East virus has killed 45 among 90 confirmed cases
* SARS virus belongs to the same coronavirus family
* Health risk to haj pilgrims "very low" - WHO
By Kate Kelland
LONDON, July 26 Despite its high current death
rate, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that emerged
in Saudi Arabia last year is unlikely to cause a SARS-like
epidemic because it is not spreading as easily, scientists said
In the fullest clinical analysis yet of the new virus,
British and Saudi researchers said that while there are many
similarities between MERS and severe acute respiratory syndrome
(SARS) - which emerged in China in 2002 and killed around 800
people worldwide - there are also important differences.
The MERS coronavirus, which can cause coughing, fever and
pneumonia, emerged last year and has spread from the Gulf to
France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Britain. The World Health
Organisation (WHO) puts the latest global toll at 45 deaths from
90 laboratory-confirmed cases.
The WHO issued its travel guidance on Thursday for pilgrims
going to the annual haj in Saudi Arabia and said the health risk
posed by the MERS virus was "very low".
Ali Zumla, a professor of infectious diseases and
international health at University College London, said the
evidence from his study suggested a large MERS epidemic with
many hundreds of deaths was unlikely.
"It is very unlikely any epidemic will ensue. The public
needs to be reassured," he told Reuters. "MERS is unlikely to
spread as rapidly, and therefore also unlikely to kill as many
people (as SARS)."
He noted that MERS was first identified 15 months ago and
there have been 90 cases reported so far. SARS, spread far more
rapidly, infecting more than 8,000 people between November 2002
and July 2003.
MILDER CASES POSSIBLY MISSED
An earlier study of how the MERS virus infects people found
that the receptors it binds to are common in the lungs and lower
respiratory tract and but not in the nose, throat and upper
respiratory tract. Some experts think this is why MERS is not
currently spreading easily from one person to another.
The study found that MERS killed around 60 percent of the
patients it infected who also had other underlying illness such
as diabetes and heart disease.
But Ziad Memish, Saudi Arabia's deputy public health
minister, who led the research, said this high death rate "is
probably spurious due to the fact that we are only picking up
severe cases and missing a significant number of milder or
"So far there is little to indicate that MERS will follow a
similar path to SARS," he said.
The vast majority of MERS cases have been in Saudi Arabia or
linked to people who contracted the virus there.
The new research, published in The Lancet Infectious
Diseases journal, is the largest case series to date and
included 47 cases of confirmed MERS infections from Saudi Arabia
between Sept 1, 2012, and June 15, 2013.
By combining clinical records, laboratory results, and
imaging findings with demographic data, the researchers found a
trend of older patients, more men, and patients with underlying
medical conditions who succumb to the disease.
As with SARS, MERS patients had a wide spectrum of symptoms.
Most of those admitted to hospital had fever, chills, cough,
shortness of breath and muscle pain. A quarter also had
gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhoea and vomiting.
But unlike with SARS, most MERS cases were in people with
underlying chronic medical conditions including diabetes, high
blood pressure, heart disease and chronic renal disease.
A study by French researchers last month said MERS had not
reached pandemic potential and may just die out.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Andrew Heavens)