By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, June 5 (Yonhap) -- The outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is not likely to develop into a pandemic in South Korea and beyond as the potentially deadly virus has not yet developed the ability to spread into the general population through the air, a U.S. virus expert said.
Since the first outbreak on May 21, South Korea has reported its fourth death and confirmed that 41 people have been infected with the MERS virus as of Friday, the largest outbreak outside Saudi Arabia. The nation's first patient was a 68-year-old man who traveled to the Middle Eastern country.
Vincent Munster, the virus unit chief at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland, played down the possibility of MERS escalating into a pandemic in South Korea and around the globe.
"I think the chance for this to happen is still fairly small. The (South Korean) government is taking appropriate measures to prevent further spread," Munster said in an email interview with Yonhap News Agency.
"In order for the MERS-coronavirus to become a pandemic, it has to acquire the ability to spread more efficiently from human-to-human in the general population and not only in a health care setting."
The expert of emerging viruses said that the latest sequence data of the MERS virus from Saudi Arabia does not suggest any "adaptive mutations" toward more enhanced human-to-human transmission, though further monitoring is needed to look into whether the virus has changed en route to South Korea from the Middle Eastern country.
The virus is considered deadlier but less infectious compared with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people when it spread across Asia in 2003.
MERS has now infected more than 1,100 people globally, with 437 deaths. More than 20 countries have been affected, with most cases in Saudi Arabia.
While the MERS virus mostly spread in hospitals in Saudi Arabia and South Korea through direct contact with patients, travel-related cases in Europe, North America, Africa didn't involve additional transmission of the virus, he said.
Munster said the death rate is directly related with the health status of the patient, with mild cases going unnoticed and patients with such health problems as obesity, diabetes and cardiac disease more likely to test positive for the virus.
"So you only see the severe cases of the disease and do not detect any mild or asymptomatic cases," Munster noted.
As there are currently no treatments for the new virus, he said health authorities should quarantine people infected with the virus and use protective equipment when treating the patients and trace their contact with them.
Growing fears over the infectious disease has forced more than 900 schools to shut down and more than 1,600 people have been quarantined in South Korea. The health ministry said it will form a joint team with the World Health Organization to make concerted efforts to contain the disease.
Albeit a small chance, Munster did not rule out the possibility of the virus developing the ability to spread through the air, advising medical staff to avoid transmission by aerosol- and droplet-generating procedures, including lavages and intubation.
More importantly, health authorities should step up efforts to communicate the current situation and educate the general public by using social media to allay panic, he added.
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