In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) caused one of the most devastating epidemics known to the developed world. There were two important lessons from this epidemic. Firstly, coronaviruses, in addition to influenza viruses, can cause severe and rapidly spreading human infections. Secondly, bats can serve as the origin and natural animal reservoir of deadly human viruses. Since then, researchers around the world, especially those in Asia where SARS-CoV was first identified, have turned their focus to find novel coronaviruses infecting humans, bats, and other animals. Two human coronaviruses, HCoV-HKU1 and HCoV-NL63, were identified shortly after the SARS-CoV epidemic as common causes of human respiratory tract infections. In 2012, a novel human coronavirus, now called Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), has emerged in the Middle East to cause fatal human infections in three continents. MERS-CoV human infection is similar to SARS-CoV in having a high fatality rate and the ability to spread from person to person which resulted in secondary cases among close contacts including healthcare workers without travel history to the Middle East. Both viruses also have close relationships with bat coronaviruses. New cases of MERS-CoV infection in humans continue to occur with the origins of the virus still unknown in many cases. A multifaceted approach is necessary to control this evolving MERS-CoV outbreak. Source identification requires detailed epidemiological studies of the infected patients and enhanced surveillance of MERS-CoV or similar coronaviruses in humans and animals. Early diagnosis of infected patients and appropriate infection control measures will limit the spread in hospitals, while social distancing strategies may be necessary to control the outbreak in communities if it remained uncontrolled as in the SARS epidemic.
Keywords: Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV); Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV); novel coronaviruses.