ATLANTA – In a war room of sorts in a neatly appointed government building, U.S. officers dressed in crisp uniforms arranged themselves around a U-shaped table and kept their eyes trained on a giant screen. PowerPoint slides ticked through the latest movements of an enemy that recently emerged in Saudi Arabia – a mysterious virus that has killed more than half of the people known to have been infected.
Here at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts from the U.S. Public Health Service and their civilian counterparts have been meeting twice a week since the beginning of June to keep tabs on the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus. MERS-CoV, as the pathogen is known, causes fevers, severe coughs and rapid renal failure as it attacks the lungs of victims.
Since it was first isolated in June 2012 in the city of Jeddah, MERS has infected at least 77 people and killed at least 40 of them. The number of confirmed cases has quadrupled since April, and patients have been sickened as far away as Tunisia and Britain. Most troubling to health experts are reports of illnesses in patients who have not been to the Middle East.
The virus has not yet emerged in the U.S., and perhaps it never will.
But when the pilgrimage season begins in July, perhaps 11,000 American Muslims will travel to the Arabian Peninsula, if past trends persist. In the meantime, millions more will fly between continents, citizens of today’s globalized world.
Many of the scientists working to understand MERS are veterans of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. A previously unknown coronavirus – a sphere-shaped virus spiked with proteins that make it look like it has a corona, or halo – jumped from its bat hosts and started infecting and killing people in China and Hong Kong.
Scientists are still perfecting their methods to test for the virus in ailing patients. Swabs from nasal passages and throats don’t seem to pick up the pathogen as well as samples from deep in the lungs. Experts don’t know how many people may have been infected with MERS without getting sick from it.
The CDC response team is working with other countries and with medical facilities in the U.S. to make sure procedures are in place to combat MERS. Hospitals have received guidelines for assessing and isolating patients to keep the virus contained.
“If there are cases that come to the U.S., we want to be well-prepared to address them,” CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said.
By the end of May, health officials had identified a particularly large cluster of 26 people who fell ill in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahsa region, as well as smaller clusters in Britain, Italy and Tunisia.