May 28, 2013 at 10:11 AM ET
A French patient infected with a deadly new respiratory virus called MERS died Tuesday of the disease, which has killed half the people it’s made sick and alarmed global health officials.
The 65-year-old man, who had traveled to Dubai, was the first patient in France to be diagnosed with the virus. The French health ministry said patient died Tuesday. His hospital roommate also tested positive for the illness and is critically ill.
The novel coronavirus is related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people in a global epidemic in 2003. It’s been named Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus or MERS. Most of those infected since the virus was identified last year had traveled to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Pakistan. There also have been cases in Britain and Germany. It’s killed 22 people so far
While there is little evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of MERS, health experts are concerned about clustering as it has spread from the Gulf to France, Britain and Germany.
French health officials have screened dozens of people who had come into contact with the two carriers in Lille.
There’s no vaccine against MERS and antiviral drugs don’t appear to be of much use against it, either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told U.S. hospitals to take strict precautions if someone shows up with symptoms and has recently traveled to the Middle East. Health care workers in contact with such patients should wear special face masks, gloves and gowns and follow other protocols to protect themselves and other patients.
Dr. Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, singled out the illness in a speech on Monday in Geneva.
"We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat," Chan said at the annual WHO meeting. "We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention. These are alarm bells. And we must respond."
(AP and Reuters contributed to this story)