If you've been following the news out of China about the latest bird flu and its threats to humans, may we direct your attention toward the Middle East for a minute?
A virus that many people had been calling a SARS-like virus because of the severe respiratory condition it has triggered in quite a few people has an official name: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV. The World Health Organization has now grudgingly accepted it, despite the group's preference not to put a place in the name of a virus.
Why's that? Well, the place name could lead to "unnecessary geographical discrimination that could be based on coincidental detection rather than on the true area of emergence of a virus," WHO says.
That said, we know that WHO wasn't fond of the provisional "SARS-like" designation for virus either.
All the cases reported so far have a link to the Middle East — the people either lived there, had traveled there, or were in close contact with an infected person who'd been there.
Now, there's a report in The Lancet that two people in France fell ill with the virus, too. A 64-year-old man who had visited Dubai in April was hospitalized in northern France later that month. A second man, who hadn't traveled abroad recently, shared a hospital room with the first patient for a few days in late April. At the time, the doctors didn't suspect the first man was infected with MERS-CoV.
The second man, a 51-year-old with a blood clot deep in his arm, was discharged at the end of April. But eight days later he showed symptoms of MERS-CoV infection. By then, the first man had been diagnosed with the virus, so the second man was quickly referred to specialists.
His condition deteriorated rapidly. Within days he experienced respiratory and kidney failure. The doctors report that he remains in intensive care. The first man died May 28.
The doctors write in The Lancet that these cases suggest the incubation period for the virus may be 9 to 12 days, longer than previously thought.
All told, the fatality rate for confirmed infections with the virus has been more than 50 percent, according to WHO, based on 49 cases and 27 deaths so far. But the true fatality rate won't be clear until the fuller extent of cases, some probably much milder, becomes known.
But WHO is worried about MERS-CoV, even more than the H7N9 bird flu. "Looking at the overall global situation, my greatest concern right now is the novel coronavirus," said Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general at WHO, in Geneva Monday. "We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat. Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control. These are alarm bells and we must respond. The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself. The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world."