Mers coronavirus that has killed 40 'may simply die out'

The World Health Organisation will meet next week to prepare for an outbreak, as a precautionary measure.

ABU DHABI // The World Health Organisation is convening an emergency committee to assess the threat of a fatal coronavirus that originated in the Arabian Gulf.

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (Mers-CoV) has infected 79 people and killed 42, including a man from Abu Dhabi, since it was discovered last year.

The organisation's committee of experts will contact each other by telephone on Tuesday to gather information and prepare for the possibility of an outbreak.

The measure is strictly precautionary, said Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director-general for health, security and environment.

"I do want to stress that right now, we see this steady pattern of cases," Dr Fukuda said. "We are not in the midst of an acute event right now."

WHO is not recommending restrictions on pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia for the Haj.

"We don't think we should try to slow travel or disrupt travel right now," Dr Fukuda said. "The penalty for that would be very high."

At the same time, much about the virus remains unknown, including how people become infected in the first place and whether there are undetected cases of mild infections, he said.

"This could begin to become much gentler or disappear," Dr Fukuda said.

"It could stay at the current level of infection. Or it could become much worse in the future. We don't really know."

The WHO committee will decide whether the situation is a "public health emergency of international concern," Dr Fukuda said at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland yesterday.

Convening the committee also means that if there is an outbreak, WHO will not have to play catch-up, he said.

"We will already have a group of emergency committee experts who are really up to speed."

So far more than half of the people known to be infected with the virus have died. The 11th person to die was an elderly man from Abu Dhabi. His relatives said he owned camels and had come into contact with a diseased animal before becoming ill. Another Mers-coV victim, a 65-year-old French tourist, died after returning from a trip to Dubai.

Cases have also been identified in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy.

However Mers-CoV does not have "pandemic potential" yet, according to a new report in The Lancet medical journal.

Epidemiologists analysed how it spread from person to person and compared it to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), a coronavirus that killed more than 750 people in 2002 and 2003.

The Lancet report cautioned that Mers-CoV "might have pandemic potential" in the future. But even in their worst-case scenario, the epidemiologists found that Mers-CoV was less infectious than Sars and could just die out.

The epidemiologists based their findings on a measure called the "basic reproduction number" - the average number of additional people that will be infected by a person with a virus. The higher the number, the more difficult it is to contain the virus.

The highest reproduction number they calculated for Mers-CoV was 0.69. A reproduction number of less than one means a virus cannot sustain its spread and will eventually become extinct.

"We are not seeing it sweep through communities," Dr Fukuda said. There were 19 known cases in April, 21 in May and 22 in June.

But because so little is understood about the virus, WHO is acting cautiously, he said.

"It is simply guesswork right now to think what is going to happen," he said.

This is the second time WHO has convened an emergency committee since the practice was implemented in 2007. The first time was for the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, Dr Fukuda said.