TORONTO — A year after SARS hit the world’s radar, scads had been learned about the virus that set off outbreaks in China, Hong Kong, Toronto and other spots, and ignited panic far beyond the affected centres.
The coronavirus was rapidly discovered, it genome sequenced within weeks of the World Health Organization warning on March 15, 2003, of its existence and spread. The animals that transmitted it to people had been identified. Doctors knew when SARS patients were infectious and what steps needed to be taken to stop its spread. With that knowledge, the virus was quickly contained. SARS is medical history.
Later this week — Friday — will mark a year since the world learned that a cousin of the SARS virus had burst out of some hiding spot in nature to infect and kill a man in Saudi Arabia. Since then, the world has learned of roughly 130 MERS cases, 57 of them fatal.
But in contrast to the SARS outbreak, at this point relatively little is known about MERS. With several million Muslim pilgrims descending on Saudi Arabia — the hottest of MERS hot spots — in coming weeks for the annual Hajj, there is a real sense of worry among scientists watching the outbreak.
Many scientists are at a loss to diplomatically explain the lack of progress.She goes on to cite Michael Osterholm's bafflement that WHO and the US government aren't complaining about the lack of information.
I'm baffled too, but I'm tactless enough to voice my suspicions: The House of Saud finds MERS an annoyance and a threat to the cash flow of this year's Hajj.
King Abdullah, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is 89, and the proud owner of an obviously dyed moustache and goatee. Every time I land on a Saudi news website, I see his face on the front page, day after day. With personal wealth estimated at US$21 billion, King Abdullah clearly does things his own way, and as one only 17 years his junior, I'm inspired by his example of remaining in charge for decade after decade.
But the king and the whole royal house are not up to speed on public health issues, and don't feel the slightest pressure to improve. Like the Buchanans in The Great Gatsby, they retreat into their money and leave others to clean up their messes. In this case, the janitor appears to be Dr. Ziad Memish, who publishes an occasional article on MERS, or issues confusing advice, but can't be bothered to answer Branswell's calls.
Just as the US government can't afford to criticize the House of Saud under any circumstances, neither can WHO or other health agencies; even lowly US scientists understand that their future research could depend on not annoying an old despot in an absurdly rich, absurdly influential, absurdly backward country...a richly ironic predicament for a global health system centuries ahead of the Saudi royals.