Mon, 07 Sep 2015
By RAJI UNNIKRISHNAN
|Manama: A Deadly virus that has killed hundreds of people across the Middle East over the past three years could in fact be a “bio-weapon”, a troubling new study suggests.|
Since first emerging in 2012, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (Mers-CoV) has infected a confirmed 1,493 people across the globe – more than a third of whom subsequently died.
Saudi Arabia has been hardest hit, reporting upwards of 1,100 cases and more than 500 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) as of this month.
Although camels are generally accepted to be reservoirs for the virus, the search for a source of ongoing infections has so far stumped researchers – leading infectious disease expert and University of New South Wales professor Raina MacIntyre to posit that bio-terrorists may be responsible.
This possibility has now been accepted as “plausible” by both experts in Bahrain and the Saudi Health Ministry, whose private health under-secretary Abdullah Asiri has not ruled it out, according to a report yesterday in the Jeddah-based Arab News.
Bahrain University (UoB) researcher and assistant professor of molecular virology Dr Essam Janahi echoed this sentiment, but cautioned against relying too heavily on a single study.
“This is an epidemiological study, which is not laboratory based and instead focuses on the pattern of the disease and how it spreads,” he said.
“The researcher has observed some unexplainable patterns in the disease while investigating the possible sources of the epidemic.”
Questions still to be answered include why there is such an unusual concentration of cases in the Middle East, how so many people have come into direct contact with camels and not been infected and how the virus has been present at several mass gatherings such as the Haj pilgrimage without an epidemic arising.
Ms MacIntyre notes that “deliberate release” cannot be discounted given “a careful review of the paradoxes and inconsistencies in the epidemiology of Mers-CoV”.
“When a new infectious disease emerges, bio-terrorism – unless it is caused by an eradicated disease such as smallpox – may not be easily
recognised for what it is unless we consider the possibility,” she said.
“A sporadic animal source of ongoing infections in humans is also possible, with most evidence supporting camels.
“However, the large increase in cases in 2014 without a clear accompanying history of camel contact in the majority of cases does not support this explanation.”
Despite agreeing that “those with an extreme agenda, who possess the kind of funds and facilities” needed “might be capable of doing such a thing”, Dr Janahi said that without further study the idea must be regarded as a “conspiracy theory” for now.
“Because a human carrier of coronavirus need not show symptoms of the infection, this raises concerns and supports the plausibility of the conspiracy theory,” he said.
“Hence we cannot rule out the possibility of Mers-CoV being developed as a bio-weapon.
“But when we had other similar outbreaks such as H1N1, Sars or Ebola, similar conspiracy theories were floated stating that people might be behind these epidemics.
“This basically needs to be investigated through the correct channels with the backing of intelligence departments, to see if any group is involved in these unexplained patterns.”
According to the latest WHO figures, 527 deaths attributed to Mers-CoV have been recorded globally since 2012.
While still not classified as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee earlier this month agreed that a heightened sense of concern about the virus should be emphasised.
When Mers-CoV first appears in a new setting or country that has not previously registered any cases “there is great potential for widespread transmission and severe disruption to the health system and to society”, the committee warned.
No cases of Mers-CoV have yet been registered in Bahrain.