May 22 2014

For the first time since Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012, the disease has spread to the United States, where there have been three confirmed cases since early this month.

On this morning’s edition of NPR’s “On Point,” W. Ian Lipkin, MD, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Mailman School, joined Tom Frieden, MD, MPH 1986, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to answer questions on MERS, including where it came from and what the risks are.

While Saudi Arabia has the lion’s share of MERS cases, the disease has spread far beyond the region.

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MERS coronavirus (Photo: NIAID)

To date, 650 people in 18 countries have been infected, and close to a third of them have died. Two of the three people with MERS in the U.S. traveled to the Middle East, where they were infected. “Something like MERS reminds us that we’re all connected in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the planes we ride,” said Dr. Frieden.

Over the last two years, Dr. Lipkin and his team have been in Saudi Arabia searching for the origin of the disease in animals. In a report published in April, they found that camels carry MERS virus that is capable of infecting humans—a sign that the animals are almost certainly the source of the outbreak. 

Simultaneously, scientists at the CDC and elsewhere are closely monitoring human cases for evidence that the MERS virus is mutating to become more capable of human-to-human transmission. So far it hasn’t, but the potential is there. A little more than a decade ago, SARS, a similar virus, mutated and spread very quickly. “Something like that could happen here. We’d like to say no, but we’d like to be prepared for it,” said Dr. Lipkin.

Listen to the program here.