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Pooling knowledge against killer Mers coronavirus

It is reassuring that the world's top experts are working together against the dangerous new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

In Cairo this weekend, 80 of the world's leading experts - scientists, doctors and public-health officials - gathered for three days to build our defences against the virus that causes the dangerous disease now known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers).

That the World Health Organisation has convened such a meeting is both worrying and reassuring. Medical experts and public-health authorities are obviously taking the problem seriously, which is a good start to managing it. On the other hand, the experts admit that they know very little about the coronavirus that causes the disease - not even where it comes from, or how it is transmitted. The nearest related virus is found in bats, and it is speculated that it passes into camels via dates infected by bat droppings and then on into humans. Transmission from camel to human - and between humans - is also not fully understood.

The ailment's name is based on the fact that the majority of the 60 cases - and 38 deaths - identified worldwide starting in April 2012 have originated in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, but also Jordan, Tunisia and the UAE. The handful of cases in western Europe have involved travellers from the Middle East.

The high mortality rate is balanced by the fact that so far, at least, the pneumonia-like sickness the virus causes has not been very contagious; there is not, in the jargon, "sustained community transmission". However, the experts are concerned that the occasional Mers victims becomes what they call a "superspreader" - a person with an increased ability to infect others. Why that should be is again unknown. There is also the ever-present danger that the virus could mutate into something far more contagious.

On the bright side, in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, an absence of new Mers cases lately has eased public concerns. As The National reported yesterday, people are putting aside their sanitary masks and resuming the traditional cheek-kiss in greeting.

Just as viruses can spread, so can humankind's defences. Research methods and findings, technological resources, diagnostic tools, hospital sanitation methods, public health advances, communication strategies, and the whole gamut of best practices can and should all be shared openly and efficiently around the world. It is reassuring to know that in the case of Mers, this is happening.

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