MERS Reported in South KoreaJune 12, 2015 in South Korea
As of 11 June 2015, 122 laboratory-confirmed cases of human infection with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Coronavirus have been reported by the South Korean health ministry, including 10 fatalities, making it the largest outbreak of MERS outside the Arabian Peninsula. Over the past three weeks, more than 3,800 people have been placed under quarantine, 641 of whom have been released after testing negative for MERS. For those infected during either the first or the second wave of the outbreak, the virus’s maximum two week incubation period has elapsed, a fact which has caused health officials to speculate that the disease has already peaked. Whether it has or not will depend on whether the containment measures adopted by the South Korean government were able to identify, isolate and treat those who had come into contact with the disease.
First identified in humans in September 2012, MERS is a viral respiratory illness from the same family as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the disease that struck China in 2003, infecting more than 5,300 people and killing 349 nationwide. There is no vaccine for MERS and doctors do not entirely understand how it is spread, except that it appears to be a zoonotic disease passed to humans from infected camels and bats. Most people infected with MERS become unwell quickly, experiencing fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea and muscle pain. Like other respiratory infections, it is not always possible to identify patients who have contracted MERS, as they may present with a range of non-specific symptoms in the early stages of the disease.
President Park Geun-hye’s government has been criticised for its failure to respond more swiftly to the outbreak of the disease and to identify “patient zero”: the 68-year old South Korean who returned home after an eight day trip to the Middle East where he had developed a cough and fever. After seeking treatment from four different health care facilities, the index patient was eventually hospitalised in Pyeongtaek, a city 65 kilometres southwest of Seoul. While refusing to name the specific hospitals and clinics visited by the patient, South Korean health authorities have confirmed that MERS cases were subsequently reported in three of the four institutions in question.
While health officials remain optimistic about containing the outbreak, its effect on South Korea’s economy is likely to have more far-reaching consequences. In what the Bank of Korea Governor Lee Ju-yeol described as a “pre-emptive more to contain the economic fallout from MERS”, interest rates have been lowered by a quarter of a percentage point to 1.5 percent. While precautionary measures such as these are doubtless in order, their effects have yet to be felt. Consumer confidence has been noticeably shaken by the virus’s spread and South Korean businesses, particularly those in hospitality and retail, have reported a sharp decline in sales. Tourism and international business has likewise been effected, with over 54,000 foreign travellers cancelling their plans to visit South Korea this month.
As the situation in South Korea continues to develop, concerns have been raised by health care professionals over MERS potential to become a global threat. While MERS is considered to be a potential pandemic threat, it seems unlikely that this particular outbreak will take on such catastrophic proportions. First, MERS is not a human virus. While it can be contracted by humans from infected animals, it is not highly contagious; in order for it to go pandemic – to pose an existential threat to members of the community – it would need to mutate. Second, the outbreak is comparatively small and mostly centred on hospitals and clinics. Although MERS spreads poorly between people, medical procedures and equipment, such as respirators, may aerosolise the virus from the lungs and infect people nearby. As a situation like this is unlikely to arise outside of a hospital setting, the spread of the disease is likely to be slow and once detected, more easily contained. Third, MERS is not SARS. While related, these two diseases differ in one important respect: SARS had developed the ability to be easily spread between people while MERS has not. Whether MERS will at some point in the future undergo genetic mutation enabling it to infect humans more easily is, at this point, mere speculation.