The Highly Fatal Coronavirus Lurking in the Middle East

“How bad is MERS?” in 4 minutes.

Gil Pires
Microbial Instincts


Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus continues to lurk silently in the Arabian Peninsula, having killed three people last year, as reported by Saudi Arabia — a continuous reminder of the importance of epidemic surveillance.

In April 2012, virologist Ali Zaki and a team of scientists at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands reported the discovery of a novel strain of coronavirus in Saudi Arabia. It was the first time in a decade since a new coronavirus had been discovered, and there was a reason for concern.

Isolated from the lung samples of a pneumonia patient hospitalized in Jeddah, the new virus caused an acute respiratory illness now called the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). And it was remarkably similar to the coronavirus behind the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic that emerged in China ten years prior, and which had killed hundreds of people.

Soon after its discovery, the new MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was detected in Jordan and Qatar. By 2013, Saudi Arabia was reporting new cases of MERS on a monthly basis, and in 2014 the largest outbreak to date occurred in the region — affecting over six hundred people and killing nearly three hundred within a year.