Chinese officials say the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, or MERS, has infected a South Korean man traveling there and may well infect more people.
It’s the first report of MERS in China, and an unusual case of the virus spreading from a country not in the Middle East.
“I think it likely there will be some other infections in Hong Kong and in mainland China,” said Dr. Daniel Lucey, a public health physician at Georgetown University Medical Center who specializes in infectious diseases and who’s taken a special interest in MERS. Lucey says reports indicate the South Korean man used public transport while traveling from South Korea to Hong Kong and then into China’s southern Guangdong province.
“I think it is likely the patient was sick during the entire trip,” Lucey said.
Chinese health officials agreed. "As we have said before, the possibility of MERS transferring into Guangdong is very high," He Jianfeng, director for the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control, told reporters.
“I think it is likely the patient was sick during the entire trip."
MERS first popped up in 2012 and has infected more than 1,140 people since then — the vast majority of them in Saudi Arabia or bordering countries. The virus has killed at least 465 people.
It doesn’t spread easily from person to person, but it can happen, and travelers have occasionally carried it with them — to France, for instance, where a MERS patient infected his hospital roommate. Lucey says he is unaware of any spread of MERS from a Middle Eastern country to not only a second but then to a third country.
The patient in China is the son of a South Korean man who also had MERS, South Korean and Chinese officials said. There’s currently a small outbreak of MERS in Korea, traced to a Middle Eastern traveler. Reuters quoted South Korean authorities as saying 12 people had been infected so far in the outbreak.
They all appear to have had direct contact with the first sick patient.
Lucey says it's too soon to say if something unusual happened in the Korean case but says 12 illnesses in a cluster like this one is unusual.
The patient in China has been isolated.
“The patient is in isolation in a hospital in Huizhou, Guangdong province. We understand he is currently in a stable condition, and is being well cared for,” the World Health Organization said in a statement.
“Chinese health authorities acted swiftly in response to the initial notification from the Republic of Korea that the close contact of a confirmed-MERS case had travelled to China earlier this week. For example, local health authorities are tracing all known close contacts of the patient,” WHO added.
"There is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission.”
“Based on the evidence about MERS gathered to date, the virus does not seem to pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact. There is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission.”
Sustained human to human transmission would mean that one person passes the virus to another, who passes it to a third person, and so on. Such a chain of transmissions with a new virus could mark the start of a pandemic.
MERS is a coronavirus, a distant relative of the SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome virus — that infected more than 8,000 people around the world and killed 774 before it was stopped in 2004.
There's no specific treatment for MERS. Patients get what's called supportive care — intravenous fluids, oxygen or a breathing tube if needed, and pain medications.
Experts still don’t know why it’s spreading in the Middle East. Camels can get the virus, but it’s not entirely clear whether they are directly infecting humans, or if another route of transmission is involved. People with kidney disease, diabetes, lung diseases and conditions that compromise the immune system are most at risk.
Two people have been diagnosed with MERS in the United States. Both recovered.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this article.