The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus is more deadly, unpredictable and has significant differences from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, according to Saudi and UK scientists studying the virus.
“MERS coronavirus appears to be more deadly, with 60 percent of patients with co-existing chronic illnesses dying, compared with the one-percent toll of SARS,” said Ziad Memish, Saudi deputy minister for public health.
He said that the MERS infecting humans is unpredictable because the source of the virus is not yet known. While sharing clinical similarities with the SARS-like fever, cough and incubation period, he said there are also some important differences such as the rapid progression to respiratory failure of up to five days. The progression occurs earlier than in SARS.
In a Lancet Infectious Diseases publication, Saudi and UK scientists also noted a trend of older patients with more men and patients with underlying medical conditions succumbing to the disease.
The symptoms of patients suffering from MERS coronavirus are fever (98 percent), chills (87 percent), cough (83 percent), shortness of breath (72 percent), and muscle pain (32 percent). A quarter of patients also experience gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea and vomiting.
However, in SARS, the majority of cases (96 percent) occurred in people with underlying chronic medical conditions including diabetes (68 percent), high blood pressure (34 percent), chronic heart disease (28 percent), and chronic renal disease (49 percent).
“The recent identification of milder or asymptomatic cases of MERS in health care workers, children, and family members of contacts of MERS cases indicates that we are only reporting the tip of the iceberg of severe cases and there is a spectrum of milder clinical disease which requires urgent definition,” said Ali Zumla, a professor from University College London.
“At the moment, the virus is still confined (to the Middle East),” said Dr. Christian Drosten of the University of Bonn Medical Centre in Germany. “But this is a coronavirus and we know coronaviruses are able to cause pandemics.”
Drosten, however, said that could be bad news. “That could mean the virus is more virulent and that (doctors) have a smaller window of opportunity to intervene and treat patients.”
Detecting MERS fast could be a problem since quick diagnostic tests aren’t available.
“Women in the (Middle East) region tend to have their mouths covered with at least two layers of cloth,” he said. “If the coronavirus is being spread by droplets, (the veils) should give women some protection.”