National Geographic Daily News
Nathan Wolfe.

Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe is working toward stopping new viruses before they become deadly pandemics.

Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Melody Kramer

National Geographic

Published May 30, 2013

A 65-year-old man infected with a new SARS-like virus died of multiple organ failure on Monday in France.

He was the first French patient to die from the condition, which is known as Middle East Respiratory Symptom Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV. As of Wednesday, 49 people have been infected with the virus since September; of those, 27 have died.

The French man, who remains unidentified, was hospitalized in Lille last month, after returning from a vacation in Dubai, where it is believed he was infected. Another patient in France was in stable but very serious condition.

Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the United Nation's World Health Organization, called the virus a "threat to the entire world" on Monday at the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

"It is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself," she said. "We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond."

Part of what worries global health officials about MERS-CoV is how rapidly it seems to be spreading around the globe. Most of the confirmed cases of the virus have originated in Saudi Arabia, but cases have also been reported in France, Germany, Qatar, Jordan, and Britain.

Does modern life make us more susceptible to modern pandemics? We asked virologist Nathan Wolfe, author of The Viral Storm and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, to explain what we know and don't know about this deadly new virus. Wolfe, the founder and executive chair of Global Viral and a visiting professor at Stanford University, is working to create an early-warning system to forecast and contain new viruses before they turn into deadly pandemics.

This new virus is a type called a novel coronavirus. How does a novel coronavirus work?

The novel coronavirus, recently named Middle East Respiratory Symptom Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, is a member of the coronavirus family; viruses from this group can cause symptoms ranging from the common cold to severe respiratory illness.

There is not yet a definitive understanding of how the virus spreads, but human-to-human transmission has been reported for several clusters, particularly in cases with sustained contact such as health-care workers. SARS, also a coronavirus, was spread through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing.

How is this virus different from SARS?

Both SARS and MERS are in the same family of viruses—the coronaviruses—but they differ enough genetically to allow us to conclude that they emerged independently from each other.

Why is this new coronavirus spreading so quickly? What do we know and what don't we know about it?

What we know:

MERS was first recognized in the Middle East in September 2012. As of last week, the WHO had reported a total of 49 infections and 27 deaths in eight countries including Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and France. MERS produces severe respiratory symptoms including fever and cough, as well as gastrointestinal symptoms, pneumonia, and kidney failure.

What we don't know:

There is still much to be discovered about MERS. We do not know how MERS originated, and while human-to-human transmission has been confirmed, we do not know the precise mechanism of transmission. We still don't know definitively what percentage of people who are infected will die (i.e., the case mortality rate). While 50 percent of the identified cases have died, it may be that only sicker individuals are being identified. Individuals who have milder symptoms may not come to hospitals and [may] be less likely to be identified—if so, the current 50 percent mortality rate may be an overestimate.

You spend your days tracking new viruses all over the world. How do you know when you've found a new virus?

We regularly collect blood from people and animals throughout the world. Advances in microbial discovery techniques have increased our ability to find new viruses. For example, recently we identified a novel rhabdovirus from three cases of acute hemorrhagic fever in Central Africa. We knew the virus was novel for two reasons: first, because it had a unique genetic signature distinct from all previously identified human viruses, and second, [because] it caused symptoms previously seen only in infections from viruses from other viral families, such as Ebola, Marburg, and yellow fever.

You founded two organizations, and one of their goals is to stop pandemics. How can we stop this from becoming a pandemic?

We've established two organizations—Global Viral and Metabiota—that work in tandem to address the various facets of pandemics and biological threats. Global Viral focuses on exploratory, basic research while Metabiota assists governments and other organizations to mitigate the risks associated with pandemics and other biological threats. Our mission is to identify viruses before they become pandemics. And we do so by working with governments, NGOs, and other organizations to establish surveillance, laboratory, and data systems aimed at tracking viruses in their earliest stages of spread.

Do we need to be worried about our pets?

While there is no particular expectation that pets are or will be involved, it is possible that MERS can infect pets. The SARS coronavirus, which originated in bats, was identified in both cats and dogs.

What's the most important thing you've learned from collecting blood samples?

Over the past ten-plus years, we've collected over 200,000 blood samples from animals and humans. Probably our single biggest lesson learned is that there's a lot more out there than we're aware of!

Are pandemics increasing in frequency?

A variety of factors, including radically increased mobility among humans and animals, has undoubtedly increased the frequency of pandemics. As we move our animals and ourselves around the world and increase the complexity of our food supply chains, we increase the probability that a new virus can spread rapidly.

Does this virus originate from animals? Why is it that most viruses start from an animal, as opposed to a human?

MERS almost certainly jumped to humans from an animal. In this case it appears most likely that it was at least originally from a bat. There is an incredible reservoir of known and unknown viruses in animals around the world—each species has its own microbial repertoire. This pool of microbes is not static—it continues to mutate and mix genes, leading to a large pool of potential agents that can infect us. And while some older human viruses can spread through changing conditions, it's estimated that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in people originate from an animal source.

What are health officials doing now? And if this spreads, what will they be doing?

We're living in a remarkable time. While the risks of pandemics have increased dramatically, so too has the global level of scientific and public health expertise. Among the exciting trends that we've seen in both the recent outbreaks of H7N9 and MERS is a high level of international collaboration and transparency. Viruses don't respect borders between countries, and our efforts to combat them must truly be global.

How can we protect ourselves?

Protecting ourselves as a planet requires long-term commitments to closely monitor hot spots—such as where animals and human frequently come into contact—as well as the resources to equip field teams, laboratories, and data scientists with the tools they need to monitor and respond to these events. Programs like the U.S. Agency for International Development's Emerging Pandemic Threats Program, the U.S. Department of Defense's Cooperative Biological Engagement Program and Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, and a growing number of foundations, such as the Skoll Global Threats Fund and the Wellcome Trust, work around the world with organizations like ours to help improve and fortify these efforts. These programs have already led to a range of successes, but long-term efforts are needed and the work has really only begun.

7 comments
Todd Van Winkle
Todd Van Winkle

Being so leathal really increases visibility way too much, how can it expect to infect Madagascar now?

Paula Strombeck-Ives
Paula Strombeck-Ives

Something more for us old people and kids to be concerned about...Smokers beware!

Tom Jones
Tom Jones

The name for this virus is confusingly similar to the financial/economic virus known as Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc.

Pandemic Twenty-Thirteen
Pandemic Twenty-Thirteen like.author.displayName 1 Like

First of all the virus has been given its 3rd scientific name!  Why experts are spending time deliberating about names at this time is questionable - perhaps this type of 'navel-contemplation' is a consequence of the unprecedented international cooperation referred to here?

In the vernacular people here are calling it simply Saudi SARS to contrast it with Hong Kong SARS!

Second two important research findings are omitted above - this virus is the first one discovered to be able to GROW in the cells of more than one species - which suggests that it may be impossible to eradicate and the receptor cells that it needs to find in order to attack the body are deep in the lungs - whereas colds and 'flu gain access in the upper respiratory tract and are thus far more contagious.

These two findings, together with the fact that vaccines for coronaviruses are almost non-existent and likely to be problematic to produce, mean that the greater risk is it being spread globally after this October's Hajj and becoming endemic.  It may be that the disproportionate number of older Arab males contracting the virus  are smokers who inhale deeply - statistically both this group and older urban Chinese men are some of the heaviest smokers in the world!  In countries like the USA Saudi SARS might in fact be more likely to infect athletes and sportspeople who breath deeply when exercising!  It is imperative that the route/s of infection are identified and that either the WHO insists that this October Saudi Arabia cancels the Hajj in Mecca or countries dissuade their citizens from deciding to go in 2013 (they only have to go once in their lives of course) and quarantine those who insist on going on their return.

Containment is the best strategy and right now we may still be able to do this and buy time to learn more about this foe.  The international monitoring team sent out last October was lead by Prof Ian Lipkin of Columbia University - but no report was ever published online and no data re samples and autopsies performed seems to have been released - Margaret Chan has decided that enough is enough and that the Saudis cannot be allowed to obstruct this vital work as they have done since Prof Zaki posted his findings on Pro-MED last September.  Those Saudis who reportedly celebrated 9/11 just might be malign enough to perceive their 'SARS' as a gift from God to destroy the hegemony of the West!  Whilst H1N1 is always more likely to do this it is the thought that counts...   

Kas Molandous
Kas Molandous like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@Pandemic Twenty-Thirteen

It is not unusual for a virus to be able to grow within the cells of more than one host. That is why there is concern about porcine and avian viruses spreading to humans. What is unusual is that MERS may be able to return to and infect its reservoir species.

Also, the name of the virus is important; it informs researchers and clinicians that this particular virus is different from other viruses in the same species. And MERS is different from SARS, regardless of what it is being called in the vernacular. It is a coronavirus like SARS, but so is the common cold virus. If I should become infected with MERS, I very much want my physician to be able to differentiate between coronaviruses before offering treatment options.

Pandemic Twenty-Thirteen
Pandemic Twenty-Thirteen

@Kas Molandous @Pandemic Twenty-Thirteen

If you are interested the paper I referred to can be found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23232719?dopt=Abstract&holding=npg:

Also I am confident that scientists and clinicians can cope with the excess nomenclature without getting confused!  What I queried was the time being spent on it and the importance of not confuising the general public - SARS is actually a syndrome not a virus so it was unfortunate that it was ever used to 'name' a virus - but it is here to stay...

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