Details still scarce as deadly new coronavirus claims latest victim

While there's been plenty of information coming out of China over the past two months about the new H7N9 bird flu, with updates on infections, deaths and how it is transmitted, there's been surprisingly little said so far about another new virus that was discovered back in September, even though this new virus is apparently more easily transmitted between people and also, apparently, more deadly.

The discovery of Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), aka 'novel coronavirus 2012 (nCoV-2012)', was first announced last September, after two men — one from Saudi Arabia and one from Qatar — died from a SARS-like illness. Since then, a total of 43 confirmed cases have been reported, in 8 countries, and 21 of those infected have died. This is compared to a total of 131 infected by H7N9 in just two countries (130 in China and 1 in Taiwan) with 36 dead. More alarming is the news that MERS can be transmitted directly, person-to-person, through close contact, whereas the infections of H7N9 only seem to have links to humans having direct contact with infected birds.

So why, with MERS so far showing a mortality rate almost double that of H7N9 and an easier, more direct path of infection between people, has there been so little said about it so far?

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According to Dr. Allison McGeer, the director of infection control at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, it's the complexity of this new virus.

"The only thing worse than not sharing data is sharing data that turns out to be not correct. And this is a very complicated investigation," she said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "It's not simple. The answers are and were not completely clear."

Dr. McGeer is an expert on the SARS coronavirus, having worked with (and actually contracted) the virus during the 2003 outbreak in Toronto, and she recently traveled to Saudi Arabia to help scientists examine the MERS coronavirus.

There's still no specific information coming out about MERS yet, but according to The Canadian Press article, Dr. McGeer says that a full report is in the works, and the situation is exactly as the Saudi officials have been reporting to the World Health Organization (WHO).

What is known so far is that there have been 43 laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus, with the majority in Saudi Arabia, but also in Qatar, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Britain, Germany and France, and three new cases have recently been reported in Tunisia. Of those infected, 21 have died, most recently a 66-year-old man in Tunisia. All of the known cases have been in people who either live in the Middle East, have recently traveled there, or have been in close contact with someone who has recently traveled there.

There are no reported cases here in Canada, but the virus is here. The National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, one of the best labs in the world, currently has a sample of MERS for testing, although according to a CBC article from Monday, the scientists there are feeling frustrated that restrictions put on them for who they can send samples of the virus to are likely going to delay important findings.

"We can't distribute [the virus] any further, which is a problem, because a lot of people would like to be working on this and can't," Dr. Frank Plummer, the scientific director of the NML, told the CBC.

It was a Dutch lab that provided the sample the NML is working with, and they only received it due to Ali Mohamed Zaki, a Saudi researcher at Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital in Jeddah, who was fired from his job for sending out the virus. According to the article, the hospital president told Zaki that it was Saudi officials who had ordered that Zaki be fired, and that "they will make big trouble" for Zaki if he came back.

"I am happy to be fired because I did a favour for humankind," Zaki said, according to CBC News, as he recognized the importance of sharing the virus with other researchers. "I don't regret about anything."

The WHO is currently advising doctors around the world to stay alert for patients showing signs of severe respiratory infections and to report cases so that possible infections by MERS can be tracked.

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As for what this virus will do in the future, that's still unclear.

"I don't have any idea what it's planning on doing and I don't think it is predictable at the moment," said Dr. McGeer in her interview with The Canadian Press.

"It is, I think, likely that there will be continued sporadic cases. ... But whether this is a stable sporadic virus that will continue to do what it's been doing and not change very much, or whether it's a virus that's in the process of changing and is going to cause more trouble is, I think, a completely open question."

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