Ten years after the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, a second coronavirus, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), has been identified as the cause of a highly lethal pneumonia in patients in the Middle East and in travelers from this region. Over the past 9 months, since the virus was first isolated, much has been learned about the biology of the virus.
It is now clear that MERS-CoV is transmissible from person to person, and its close relationship with several bat coronaviruses suggests that these animals may be the ultimate source of the infection.
However, many key issues need to be addressed, including identification of the proximate, presumably zoonotic, source of the infection, the prevalence of the infection in human populations, details regarding clinical and pathological features of the human infection, the establishment of a small rodent model for the infection, and the virological and immune basis for the severe disease observed in most patients.
Most importantly, we do not know whether a MERS-CoV epidemic is likely or not. Infection with the virus has so far resulted in only 91 cases and 46 deaths (as of 29 July 2013), but it is nonetheless setting off alarm bells among public health officials, including Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, who called MERS-CoV “a threat to the entire world.”
This article reviews some of the progress that has been made and discusses some of the questions that need to be answered.