Friday 8 January 2016

Research on MERS in South Korea seems fractured...

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is not the only country that can be seen as slow to initiate local research on local cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), MERS-coronavirus (MERS-CoV) or the epidemiology thereof.

The outbreak in South Korea began when an incubating person flew in from Qatar, arriving 4th May. He became ill while in South Korea, with symptoms beginning on the 11th May 2015. This was to become the largest MERS-CoV outbreak outside of the Arabian Peninsula and it is still to be investigated as the overarching single event that it really was. Scientific papers, letters, media and case reports all look at small groups of specimens, this or that specific hospital, a particular slice in time or an interesting group of cases and they reach a range of conclusions. But there appears to be no over-arching all-encompassing study of the outbreak. We did eventually see such a report from the KSA in its description of four dozen early MERS cases - 13 months after the first case became ill.[4] South Korea only had 185 cases in total (exporting one to southern China) so this should not be a great task.

A recent article in The Korea Times noted that "while the initial tests were conducted on a limited number of patients, research is underway to screen clinical specimens from 32 people that will help shed better light on the matter."[1] Well, perhaps a part of the matter. [1]
The article focusses on Spike gene mutations that were found in the MERS-CoV variants from 8 human cases - which is not a remarkable discovery and has been happening since we first saw sequenced MERS-CoV from humans (see "Tracking MERS-CoV through time: a spikey problem" [2]). 

The article also goes on to say that "There is a need to focus the country’s research capability on finding the reason for the change." Those will be dollars wasted since one cannot "find the reason" for a virus mutating because that is akin to asking why we exist. 

Scientific studies can determine that the variants have mutated at certain points and they can seek out whether those changes have any effect on the efficiency of viral replication, transmission or on our immune response to infection. This will be achieved by comparison to other non-mutated MERS-CoV variant viruses and will need more than one older variant to be included so as to encompass all of the different Spike gene mutations that have been determined to date. But these studies cannot find the reason for these mutations. Yes, that is a pedantic point.
We are about 6 months out from when the final MERS case first became ill in the South Korean outbreak. This media report sadly highlights that the world is still far away from seeing comparative experimental data defining whether or not there was anything special about the MERS-CoV variants in the outbreak. Strangely though, it has already been concluded that the rapid spread of MERS-CoV in South Korea was not due to viral changes but instead because of the poor control of transmission in healthcare settings.[3] That makes this report and its message to the public both a little stale and perhaps even unnecessarily alarming.

Clearly, the KSA was not alone in needing to improve its collaboration, communication and organization of research in response to the appearance of a new virus. 



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