WWS Reacts: How to Fight MERS

Jun 16 2015
By B. Rose Huber
Topics Health
Source Woodrow Wilson School

Since mid-May, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has infected 150 and killed 16 people in South Korea. Now, after months of quarantine, hundreds in the region are being released.

We discussed the threat of MERS with Laura Kahn, a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Because MERS is an animal virus – it originated with camels in the Middle East – Kahn proposes a "One Health" approach to combating this illness.

Q. What is MERS? How does it spread? 

Kahn: Like SARS, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is caused by a coronavirus. MERS is generally deadlier than SARS. The mortality rate for SARS was around 10 percent whereas the rate in MERS has been around 30 to 40 percent. MERS spreads through infected respiratory secretions such as coughing. Other ways it might spread are not entirely understood.  

Q. Where is MERS the biggest threat? Do you expect that to change?

Kahn: The biggest threat had been in the Arabian Peninsula where it first emerged in 2012. The threat recently changed when, in late May, it popped up in South Korea and China. There have been 150 confirmed cases (149 South Korea and one China) with 16 deaths.

Laura Kahn

Q. How is MERS similar to Ebola and other viruses?

Kahn: MERS, Ebola and many other emerging diseases are zoonoses, meaning that they are animal viruses that infect humans. 

Q. Could MERS have been prevented? If so, how?  

Kahn: A "One Health" approach that integrates human, animal and environmental health should be an important strategy in containing zoonotic diseases. Too often, healthcare systems ignore animal health until after problems in humans develop. Instead, there should be close surveillance of animals, and efforts should be implemented to make sure that animal secretions and wastes do not contaminate human food. In the case of MERS, camels are likely an intermediary host. DNA evidence suggests that bats in Saudi Arabia could be the definitive host. Bats are reservoirs for quite a few deadly human diseases including SARS, rabies, Nipah virus and possibly the Ebola virus among others.  

Q. Going forward, what is the best way to fight MERS and other similar diseases?

Kahn: As previously mentioned, a One Health approach in which veterinarians and environmental health specialists are considered an integral part of the global health team would be a prudent strategy.

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.