LONDON— The World Health Organization said the global death toll from a SARS-like virus has risen to 30, after three new deaths were reported in Saudi Arabia. Health experts are scrambling to understand the new virus.
World Health Organization spokesperson Gregory Hartl spoke to VOA from Geneva. He said, "As of today we have 50 confirmed cases of which unfortunately 30 have died.”
The most recent deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia, from where two-thirds of the cases have emerged.
In all, eight countries that have been affected by the virus, including Tunisia, Jordan, Britain, and France, where earlier this week a 65-year-old man died of the virus - the first patient in France to die from the condition.
But Hartl emphasized that up until now the virus appears to have its routes in the Middle East.
“So far all the cases have a connection to the Arabian Peninsula," he said. "The initial cases in France and in the U.K. and in Tunisia all had a travel history associated with somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula and then once they got back to their home countries there was a very limited person-to-person transmission.”
The virus has recently been given a new name, the Middle East Respiratory Symptom Coronavirus, or MERS for short. It is a cousin of SARS, another coronavirus, which emerged in Asia a decade ago and went on to kill around 800 people. Health experts say SARS, which was spread by respiratory droplets through coughing or sneezing, appears to have passed from person to person more easily than the new virus.
But speaking in Geneva on Monday the director-general of the WHO said MERS is a "threat to the entire world". Hartl said of major concern right now is how little is known about the virus.
“We need to figure out how and where humans get infected in order to be able to control it," he said. "And we also need to work to develop medical means of treating the disease in terms of vaccines or anti-virals, which we do not have at the moment.”
The source of MERS is yet unknown. But the World Health Organizations said it appears to have originated in bats. It said a single variant from bats may have crossed over to another, intermediate animal before subsequently infecting humans.