In a war room of sorts in a neatly appointed government building, US officers dressed in crisp uniforms arranged themselves around a U-shaped table and kept their eyes trained on a giant screen. PowerPoint slides ticked through the latest movements of an enemy that recently emerged in Saudi Arabia — a mysterious virus that has killed more than half of the people known to have been infected.
Here at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts from the US Public Health Service and their civilian counterparts have been meeting twice a week since the beginning of June to keep tabs on the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus. Mers-CoV, as the pathogen is known, causes fevers, severe coughs and rapid renal failure as it attacks the lungs of victims.
Since it was first isolated in June 2012 in the city of Jeddah, Mers has infected at least 77 people and killed at least 40 of them. The number of confirmed cases has quadrupled since April, and patients have been sickened as far away as Tunisia and Britain. Most troubling to health experts are reports of illnesses in patients who have not been to the Middle East.
The virus has not yet emerged in the US, and perhaps it never will. But in July and August, towards the end of the holy month of Ramadan, around 11,000 American Muslims will travel to the Arabian Peninsula. In the meantime, millions more will fly between continents, citizens of today’s globalised world.