MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, has flared anew in Saudi Arabia, its country of origin. On Sunday, the Saudi Ministry of Health reported 6 new MERS cases, and 49 within the past week. Since the virus first appeared in the kingdom in 2012, the toll has reached 1,147 people infected and 487 killed. The timing of the uptick in cases over the last month or so is particularly troubling, because the annual haj pilgrimage is coming up in September.
Riyadh is hoping to make the haj smoother and more orderly than ever this year. The government has started using a new unified visa system for Indians and Indonesians, and has already issued 615,976 such visas. An average of 13,000 pilgrims are arriving every day, according to the Directorate General of Passports (Jawazat). Over 1,800 officers, soldiers, and employees of Jawazat have been stationed in King Abdulaziz International Airport to handle this influx. Interior Ministry sources say that all entry points to the holy city of Mecca are equipped with state-of-the-art technology to identify pilgrims via fingerprints and uncover forged passports and fake haj permits. And on Sunday, Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, Chairman of the Central Haj Committee, launched the awareness campaign “Haj is worship and civilized conduct.”
But MERS could wreak havoc if it spreads among the anticipated 1.5- 2 million foreign and domestic pilgrims, who mix in very close quarters. International health organizations have criticized Saudi Arabia in the past for slow and inadequate responses leading to multiple outbreaks. And while the government pours enormous resources into maintaining pilgrims’ health, i.e., screening travelers and setting up temporary hospitals near the holy sites, the haj nevertheless presents prime conditions for the spread of a respiratory disease.
Some damage-control steps are being taken, or at the very least considered. King Abdulaziz Medical City, the hospital at the epicenter of the outbreak, has been closed several times and has implemented much more stringent safety procedures to limit contagion. And because the virus is believed to have spread to humans from infected camels, the government is considering a ban on the practice of sacrificing camels and sharing their meat with the poor during the haj.
However, there is still no specific treatment for MERS and no rapid test, making diagnosis and recovery difficult. But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, as a new experimental vaccine against MERS has proven to be 100% effective in animal trials. In a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the experimental vaccine can fully protect rhesus macaque monkeys from MERS when administered six weeks prior to being exposed to the virus. At the same time, the vaccine was also found to be capable of producing possibly protective antibodies in the blood of camels. A separate study found that antibodies from the blood of a MERS survivor can treat the disease in mice. But still, it takes several years for medical trials to be conducted on humans, so even if these solutions pan out scientifically, the won’t be available for a decade or so.
There may be a shortcut, however. While logistically difficult, public health officials could vaccinate the camels themselves, since veterinary vaccines are much easier to get through trials. For now though, pilgrims should take precautions and pray nothing happens.