We have the dubious privilege of observing a new disease in the midst of being born. The disease could go on to spread around the world, stall out as a minor, local blight, or disappear altogether. Scientists have been observing its emergence for a year now, and while they know more than they did in 2012, they still can’t predict quite what will happen. Part of their uncertainty stems from the fact that they still don’t know much about its past.
The disease I speak of is Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome–MERS for short. Last fall, doctors began recognizing this pneumonia-like disease in people who either lived in or passed through Saudi Arabia. Virologists soon isolated a virus common to them all, which they named MERS-CoV. Now, a year after its discovery, people are still getting infected with MERS, and many of the infected are dying. The World Health Institute reported on Friday that, from September 2012 to date, they’ve been notified of 130 people with laboratory-confirmed MERS-CoV infections, the vast majority of whom are in Saudi Arabia. Out of those 130 people, 58 have died.
Some scientists are scrambling to test out MERS vaccines and anti-viral drugs that can fight the pathogen. Others are acting as the virus’s historians, trying to figure out where it came from. Back in March, I wrote about the preliminary investigations into the origins of MERS. Now, six months later, researchers have looked at some of the viruses from newer cases, using powerful methods for statistically comparing the genes in the viruses. They’ve carried out the biggest genetic study of MERS so far.