A Canadian infectious diseases expert who is helping to investigate a large coronavirus outbreak in Saudi Arabia says she understands people's frustration about the lack of information on the situation.
But Dr. Allison McGeer says the outbreak is complex and pulling together the data to accurately reflect what has been going on in the Al-Ahsa region of the country just takes time. She also revealed that a report on the outbreak is being written.
"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," said McGeer, who returned to Canada from the Middle East on Saturday.
"It's not simple. The answers are and were not completely clear."
The outbreak, the largest to date with the new virus, has produced at least 22 cases, nine of which have been fatal. It has involved spread among patients in a hospital and from them to family members and even two health-care workers. It is not yet apparent whether the outbreak is over.
The most recently reported case in this cluster was revealed on Saturday, an 81-year-old woman who was reported to be in critical but stable condition.
Globally there have been 43 confirmed MERS infections and 21 of the cases have been fatal. (The acronym stands for Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome.) Cases have been reported from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Britain, Germany, France and Tunisia. But the European and Tunisian cases all had their origins in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula.
McGeer is the head of infection control at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. She was a key player in the city's response during the 2003 SARS outbreak, and actually contracted the disease herself. Her experience with that pathogen — which is from the same family as the MERS coronavirus — is one of the reasons she was asked to travel to Saudi Arabia to help with the investigation.
The other is that the Saudi deputy health minister, Dr. Ziad Memish, trained in Toronto and knows many of the infectious diseases experts here. Memish got his medical degree at the University of Ottawa but did his internal medicine and infectious diseases training in Toronto.
McGeer was one of three infection control specialists who travelled to Saudi Arabia to help with the outbreak, and was the one who stayed the longest. Dr. Trish Perl, an expert from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Md., and Dr. Connie Price from the University of Colorado in Denver also spent a few days in Saudi Arabia at Memish's invitation. Both Perl and Price were among a number of U.S. infection control specialists who came to Toronto during the SARS outbreak to help contain the spread of the disease.
A fourth infection control expert, Dr. Paul Tambyah of National University of Singapore, had also been invited but was not in Saudi Arabia while McGeer was there. She said he was, however, one of a number of experts who were consulted by phone.
There has been much — if muted — frustration voiced about how little information has emerged from Saudi Arabia and other MERS-source countries since the new virus was first spotted last fall. And the mostly behind-the-scenes grumbling has intensified since Saudi Arabia revealed in early May that it had discovered what has turned out to be a large outbreak in the eastern Saudi city of Al Hofuf, near the Persian Gulf. Al Hofuf is in the Al-Ahsa region.
In fact, when WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan opened the World Health Assembly on Monday she lauded China for the openness of its efforts to combat H7N9 bird flu, but offered no corresponding praise for Saudi Arabia and the MERS-affected countries when she talked about the threat posed by the new coronavirus. The assembly is the annual general meeting of WHO member states.
McGeer would not speak about some aspects of what she learned in Saudi Arabia, but she did say that a detailed report on the outbreak is pending.
"Although I can sense frustration, the situation is exactly as described by the Saudis in their postings" to the WHO and to ProMED, McGeer said. ProMED is an Internet-based infectious diseases surveillance system through which Memish has revealed some information about the Al-Ahsa outbreak.