Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

This is a notifiable disease in the UK. See the Notifiable Diseases article for more detail.

Synonyms: novel coronavirus

Human coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause respiratory infections in humans and animals.

Coronaviruses can cause a range of symptoms varying from mild symptoms such as the common cold to more serious respiratory illnesses[1]. This new coronavirus was called novel coronavirus. It is now called Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV)[2]. It was first identified in September 2012 in a patient who had died from a severe respiratory infection in June 2012. Following this there have been cases reported in the Middle East and UK with the threat of infection spreading throughout the world. See the World Health Organization (WHO) website for the latest updates[2]. Always take a detailed history from any person who is unwell and has returned from abroad.

Transfer from camels to humans has been reported[3].

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 was also caused by a coronavirus but MERS is not the same as SARS[4]. See separate Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome article.

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The incubation period is currently considered to be up to ten days and therefore any respiratory illness occurring in the ten days following last contact with a confirmed person with MERS-CoV is considered relevant and close contacts should self-isolate and alert their GP as soon as possible.

MERS has presented so far as an acute, serious respiratory illness with fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. There was a significant mortality (greater than 50%) for the confirmed cases in the first six months of virus identification. However, it is not known whether this is the main type of presentation or whether the virus is more common and more often causes mild respiratory tract infections which have not been fully investigated.

Travellers with mild respiratory symptoms, returning from the Arabian peninsula and surrounding countries, are most likely to have a common respiratory illness but anyone with severe respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath should be assessed for the possibility of MERS-CoV infection.

Primary care healthcare workers should consider MERS-CoV in any person with:

  • Symptoms of fever (≥38°C); AND
  • History of cough and/or breathlessness or clinical signs of lower respiratory tract infection; OR
  • Other severe/life-threatening illness suggestive of an infectious process.

AND EITHER

  • History of travel to, or residence in an area where infection with MERS-CoV could have been acquired (currently Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen), but check the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and WHO websites for updates) within two weeks of symptom onset; OR
  • Close contact during the 14 days before onset of illness with a confirmed case of MERS-CoV infection while the case was symptomatic; OR
  • A healthcare worker based in ICU caring for patients with severe acute respiratory infection, regardless of history of travel or use of personal protective equipment (PPE) - full PPE is correctly fitted high-filtration respirator, gown, gloves and eye protection); OR
  • Part of a cluster of two or more epidemiologically linked cases within a two-week period requiring ICU admission, regardless of history of travel.

Close contact is defined as:

  • Prolonged face-to-face contact (>15 minutes) with a symptomatic confirmed case in a household or other closed setting; OR
  • A healthcare or social care worker who provided direct clinical or personal care or examination of a symptomatic confirmed case, or within close vicinity of an aerosol-generating procedure AND who was not wearing full PPE at the time.

Notify the local Health Protection Unit (HPU) and local HPA Public Health Laboratory if any person presents with possible MERS-CoV infection.

For suspected cases and close contacts, primary care health workers should follow the algorithm suggested by Public Health England. Initially, the health protection team and duty microbiologist/virologist at the local public health laboratory should be contacted. A clinical risk assessment should be performed by a local clinical microbiologist. Full PPE should be worn.

  • The role of primary care health workers is limited, as described above.
  • Secondary care clinicians should manage the patient using standard transmission-based precautions for respiratory tract infections.
  • Full PPE is essential for all those in close contact with the patient.
  • There is no specific treatment. Management of severe infections is the same as for any cause of acute respiratory distress syndrome.
  • Any patient with severe symptoms will require admission to hospital and management within an ICU (this will include virtually all cases of MERS-CoV).

There is currently no vaccination available for protection. Anyone travelling to the Middle East or any other country considered to be a risk for becoming infected with MERS-CoV should check the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) website[6]

Healthcare workers should ensure they wear full protective equipment when caring for people with suspected MERS-CoV infection.

Camel owners should maintain impeccable personal hygiene measures after handling camels and ensure that any camels that are unwell (eg, rhinitis, conjunctivitis) should be kept away from the general public.

Further reading & references

  • Zumla A, Hui DS, Perlman S; Middle East respiratory syndrome. Lancet. 2015 Jun 3. pii: S0140-6736(15)60454-8. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60454-8.
  1. Novel Coronavirus 2012; Health Protection Agency (archived content)
  2. Coronavirus infections; World Health Organization (WHO)
  3. Mohd HA, Al-Tawfiq JA, Memish ZA; Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) origin and animal reservoir. Virol J. 2016 Jun 3;13:87. doi: 10.1186/s12985-016-0544-0.
  4. Coronavirus; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA)
  5. MERS-CoV Case Algorithm, Public Health England, 2016
  6. Travel Health Pro; National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC)

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
28511 (v2)
Last Checked:
24/08/2016
Next Review:
23/08/2021

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