Special Report : Saudi Arabia takes heat for spread of MERS virus

Thursday, May 22, 2014
By Paul Martin

May 22, 2014

In a north London laboratory on a Saturday in September 2012, an email arrived from a team of virologists in the Netherlands that spooked even some of the world’s most seasoned virus handlers.

It contained details of a mysterious viral pathogen that had been found in two patients – a Qatari in intensive care in Britain, and a Saudi who died in a Jeddah hospital of pneumonia and renal failure.

This information-sharing between world-leading specialists proved fruitful: Within days the new virus had been identified as one never seen before in humans, had some of its genes sequenced, and its genetic ancestry published online for scientists around the world to see.

Yet that international collaboration was not to last.

Instead, Western scientists allege, the cooperation gave way to a Saudi culture of suspicion and stubbornness that has allowed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, as it has become known, to kill more than 175 people in Saudi Arabia, spread throughout the region and reach as far as Malaysia, Greece, Lebanon and – via Britain – the United States.

The disease, like its cousin Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), causes coughing, fever and sometimes fatal pneumonia. More than 650 people worldwide have been infected with it, and MERS is reaching new victims every day in the Saudi kingdom, killing around 30 percent of them.

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