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MERS 'no immediate danger'

Gui Hao / sriJune 15, 2015

The number of people in South Korea contracting the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) continues to rise, sparking widespread concerns. DW spoke to virologist Christian Drosten about the impact of the virus.

Südkorea MERS Ausbruch
Image: Reuters/K. Hong-Ji

For the past several weeks, South Korean authorities have been preoccupied with their efforts to stem the spread of the current outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, which has so far claimed 16 lives in the East Asian nation.

About 150 people have contracted the deadly virus since the first case was reported in May. The health emergency has also had a negative impact on the country's economic prospects, prompting the nation's central bank to recently cut its benchmark interest rates.

Furthermore, the outbreak prompted President Park Geun-Hye to cancel a trip to the US scheduled for June 14-18. The cancelation comes amid increased criticism of her administration's response to the crisis. In a DW interview, virologist Christian Drosten says the best precondition for stopping the spread of a disease like MERS is to keep the people well informed.

DW: The number of MERS-related fatalities in South Korea has reportedly reached 16, while some 150 have been infected. How do you assess the current situation?

Christian Drosten: There hasn't been any major change on the ground. A total of 16 deaths out of 150 infections means the fatality rate stands at over 10 percent. We have seen such levels of deaths, sometimes even higher, during previous outbreaks. There is no indication at present that the virus has changed.

Is there any danger of the virus spreading among the general population?

No. Almost all the South Korean patients were infected in the hospital and the virus is transmitted from person to person. This is normal and should be seen within a medical context.

Porträt - Professor Christian Drosten
Drosten: 'There is currently no transmission of the virus among the general population'Image: W. Gatow

However, there is also the concern that the virus may be transmitted to communities outside hospitals. But we do not see that happening at the moment. There is no evidence of the virus spreading among the general population.

A South Korean man in isolation at a hospital in Slovakia is also suspected of having MERS. What are the chances of the virus spreading to Europe?

It is quite normal during such epidemics to have such suspected cases in other countries, as people travel a lot nowadays. However, it does not mean that there is an immediate danger for Europe. There is no chance for a normal person, who did not contract the virus at a South Korean hospital, to be infected with MERS.

In Europe there is a greater probability that someone from the Middle East may spread the virus. There have been several instances of viruses being transmitted to Europe in this way. But in none of such cases did it lead to an outbreak.

How much progress has the scientific community made in terms of developing a vaccine for MERS?

For a virus like MERS, which has been known only for three years, efforts are still ongoing to develop a vaccine. Several teams at the German Center for Infection Research are working to this end.

There has been some success with the development of a vaccine that seems to work well on animals. However, a lot of work still needs to be done and it takes a long time for the vaccine to be ready for clinical use.

While the German government has so far only given medical advice to people traveling to South Korea, many Asian countries have already canceled flights and some have even issued travel warnings. Is this appropriate from a medical perspective?

There is currently no transmission of the virus among the general population, so I view the travel warnings issued by some Asian countries as an overreaction. The German response has been more appropriate given than there is currently no real possibility for travelers to get infected.

One has to keep in mind, however, that Asian countries want to make no mistake after the SARS outbreak twelve years ago.

Would you say that South Korea has reacted appropriately to this latest outbreak?

South Korea has taken drastic measures. The general population is very well informed. Some actions, such as the closing of schools and public places may be viewed as excessive given the current epidemiological situation. But South Korea wants to play it safe. The best precondition for stopping the spread of a disease is to keep the people well informed.

Is there a risk of a new, more dangerous virus emerging through mutation?

Mutations cannot be excluded. But after examining the virus sequences so far identified, a host of international experts and I haven't noticed anything extraordinary thus far.

Christian Drosten heads the Institute of Virology at the University of Bonn in Germany. He helped discover the SARS virus and conducts research, among other things, on the MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus).