Last year, two people in Saudi Arabia had contracted a mysterious coronavirus just before the annual Hajj, raising fears of a SARS-like outbreak. That didn’t happen, but the virus, which causes a condition called Middle East Respirtory Syndrome (MERS), has been spreading. A year later, officials in Saudi Arabia are once again trying to prevent an outbreak at a pilgrimage that attracts 2 million people from across the world.
"We've done a lot of work to ensure Hajj goes smooth without any [Mers] cases," Professor Tariq Madani, the Saudi Arabian government's scientific advisor on MERS, told the BBC. "Being a virus transmissible from human to human is a big concern for Hajj. We have overcrowding and this is an excellent medium for a respiratory infection to spread."
Since the coronavirus that causes MERS was noticed in 2012, there have been 855 cases of MERS, and 333 people have died, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. But even though the virus has killed hundreds of people, there’s still a lot we don’t know about it, including where it comes from. While camels are the most likely suspect, the WHO emphasizes that “the full picture on the source is not yet clear.”
The MERS virus is from the same family of coronaviruses as SARS, but it’s not quite as easily transmissible. That being said, "not quite as easily transmissible" as SARS is still pretty bad. The virus now appears to be transmissible between humans in close contact, and a large number of the people who contracted MERS caught it in hospitals that didn’t have extensive safety protocols in place. After a spike in the number of cases within the kingdom earlier this year, the King of Saudi Arabia fired his Health Minister, Abdullah al Rabeeah, who apparently had told reporters that there was no need for additional protective measures to try to control the spread of the virus.
Since then, the BBC reports that much tighter infection controls have been implemented in Saudi hospitals, and the government has set up a dedicated control center in Jeddah to coordinate responses to new cases.