There are still many things researchers don’t know about the new SARS-like virus now called MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus) that’s been infecting people in the Middle East.
There’s no vaccine against the new virus, but a study published in the journal Scientific Reports on March 27 showed that the anti-virals ribavirin and interferon-alpha 2b seem to stop the virus from copying itself in the lab. About half of the 40 infected people have died.
Here’s what we know happens when you get infected with MERS, based on the first few cases published in November 2012 in the New England Journal Of Medicine. Some people — especially those who aren’t already sick with another disease — just get a mild respiratory illness, similar to the flu.
First, you come into contact with the virus. Researchers don’t know where the virus lives — it could infect animals and be spread by contact with them, but we don’t know what animal.
The virus, previously dubbed the novel coronavirus (nCoV) and now called the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), is genetically similar to the notorious SARS virus that erupted in China and Hong Kong a decade ago. Coronaviruses are usually transmitted to humans from bats, so they could be the reservoir, but the virus hasn’t been found in any animal yet, according to the World Health organisation.
There’s evidence the virus can pass from human to human: It spread from a patient in France to two others, and a cluster of 20 people were infected at a Saudi Arabian hospital. These infections happen when the virus from one patient to another through “prolonged” contact of more than 15 minutes.
Scientists don’t know how long the virus sticks around in the body before showing symptoms. A study published March 14 in Eurosurveillance, indicated that in a U.K. cluster from February 2013, the first symptoms of infection showed up within 10 days.
First symptoms appear
The first symptoms of the virus include fever and upper respiratory tract infection, and a cough — similar to a flu or cold. The U.K. man mentioned above started showing these symptoms four days after he arrived in Saudi Arabia.
Respiratory symptoms worsen
As symptoms continue to get worse over the next few days, the patient visits the doctor. Often, they are admitted to the hospital. The first patient had been feverish, coughing, horking up mucus and having trouble breathing for seven days before he showed up at the doctor.
You would probably be put on anti-virals at this point.
When the virus gets into cells it massively disrupts the patient’s immune response, essentially robbing them of their only defence against the infection, according to a study in mBIO.
What brings patients to the hospital is the presence of the infection in the lungs as pneumonia or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. These severe acute respiratory diseases require hospitalization.
The WHO is recommending that doctors treat patients with “convalescent plasma” — the clear fluid part of blood that contains virus-fighting antibodies from people who have survived the disease.
Respiratory failure and Intubation
Even under the care of doctors, respiratory symptoms continue to worsen. Most patients eventually required mechanical ventilation or other advanced respiratory support.
Patients may be put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) — a procedure in which blood is removed from the body and oxygenated outside of it using artificial lungs.
Multiple organ dysfunction
About seven days after getting to the hospital, your liver enzymes — an indication of the organ’s health — will start to rise. Multiple patients suffered kidney failure along with their respiratory symptoms.
Eventually your body gives in and you die. The first patient died 11 days after being admitted to the hospital. His death was deemed to be from “progressive respiratory and renal failure.”
The symptoms above are based on our current understanding of the virus, and they are only meant to be a representation of what is currently understood.
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