The new SARS-like virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus infection (MERS), is spreading across the planet, and the World Health Organisation has labelled it a "threat to the entire world."
The virus, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) originally said would never pose a threat outside the Middle East, has now reached 18 countries across the world. Cases have now been confirmed in Jordan, Lebanon, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Great Britain.
MERS was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and since then 173 people have died from contracting the disease, about one third of those infected. It is transmitted through close contact, and the elderly or very young are particularly vulnerable to its symptoms, which take the form of acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, a cough and shortness of breath, with severe complications that include pneumonia and kidney failure.
Three cases have been confirmed in the United States, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced today after an unidentified Illinois man tested positive for the deadly respiratory virus yesterday. The first case of MERS was identified in Indiana two weeks ago, and the CDC have revealed that the latest victim had contracted the disease after having a 30 minute business meeting with the Indiana patient.
The other US cases had contracted the virus whilst abroad, but this is the first known transmission of the disease within the US.
The CDC and state officials are now working hard to try and contain the spread of the virus by hunting down any person known to have had contact with the current victims. One of the patients who has tested positive for MERS did not require medical care and "is now reported to be feeling well."
MERS was originally thought to have made the leap to humans from camels, but the most likely form of trans-species contagion is now believed to be from Egyptian Tomb bats. There is currently no dedicated treatment for MERS, and no prospect of a vaccine in the near future. Sufferers can only expect supportive care for their symptoms, so preventative measures, such as good hygiene, thorough hand-washing and avoidance of sick people and animals, particularly camels or bats.
But is this the real story? Could this virus have mutated from cameline or noctilionine versions, or was it actually genetically engineered? Some sources suggest that it was created specifically to target certain ethnic groups of people, such as those from the Middle East, and so far the spread of MERS seems to be consistent with this theory. In those cases that have occurred outside of Saudi Arabia, the victims' nationalities have not always been disclosed but, intriguingly, information suggests that MERS does appear to be race-specific and has predominantly affected those of Arabic descent.
The idea of a race-specific bio-weapon is not a new one, and rumors of such government-sponsored projects have abounded in recent years. Anonymous Israeli and U.S intelligence sources have apparently claimed that modified bacterium and viruses are being researched for the production of a bio-weapon that could be propagated through air and water supplies, perhaps even for an "ethnic cleansing" project.
Whether these rumors have any basis in fact, are pure speculation, or are cynically premeditated, only time will tell; as with all so-called "conspiracy theories," sometimes such rumors are disseminated as a form of disinformation designed to promote fear and destabilise certain communities. One thing is certain, however: whatever its origins, MERS now poses a significant health risk across the globe and we can only hope and pray that it does not claim any more lives.