THERE'S a new strain of respiratory virus and it has worried medical specialists here and abroad.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) has already caused 77 infections and 40 deaths worldwide as of early July. Of the cases, 87 percent were recorded in its region of origin where around two million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are located.

Although the country remains free from the virus, the continuous rise of cases abroad caused the health sector to consider MERS-CoV a threat to Philippine health.

Dr. Enrique Tayag, director of the National Epidemiology Center (NEC) of the Department of Health (DOH), said the country is vulnerable to an outbreak because of MERS-CoV’s high level of person-to-person transmissibility.

“Experts have shown that there is already a person-to-person transmission and that is one step away from community transmission,” he said.

Tayag further expressed his concern over OFWs from Middle East, as they could be possible carriers of the virus.

Dr. Ma. Salve Olalia, director of the UST Health Service, said the Filipino community could not afford to be complacent.

“The fact that we have OFWs in the Middle East and [in] European countries exposes us to the possibility of getting MERS-CoV cases,” she said in an e-mail to the Varsitarian.

Novel strain

MERS-CoV infection has symptoms similar to those of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Both belong to the coronavirus family and their symptoms include coughing, fever and shortness of breath.

During SARS' eight-month outbreak, there were a total of 8,273 cases, claiming 775 lives. It had a fatality rate of 9.6 percent, relatively smaller compared to MERS-CoV’s 52 percent.

The 'unsinkable' Thomasian

Donna Mae Papa, a microbiology professor at the College of Science, said that even though both viral strains were very similar, there were still different in terms of "morphology and their genetic sequence."

The microbiologist also noted that the source of MERS-CoV is still yet to be known, but said that the new strain resembles that of the coronavirus found in bats.

Because MERS-CoV is ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus, it is highly susceptible to mutation, causing it to replicate and propagate at a much faster pace.

Papa emphasized that the virus’ rate of mutation should not remain unnoticed, as the respiratory virus already had nine sequences since it first manifested September last year.

“There are already nine sequences of the MERS virus deposited in the GenBank, which implies that in a span of nine months, experts have already studied several kinds of [the virus],” she said.

GenBank is a database maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information based in the United States which contains various protein translations of RNA and deoxyribonucleic acid.

She warned of possible mutation into a deadlier strain, which might happen with even the slightest change in the environment.

“Mutation is dangerous when it produces a new entity which is more fatal and elicits infection and disease,” Papa said, adding that RNA viruses like MERS-CoV have the potential to become more infectious after mutation.

‘A degree of uncertainty’

Tayag said there are still uncertainties concerning the disease, especially now that there is no vaccine available to protect the people from the deadly strain.

Chicken soup for the Filipino youth

The instability and fast mutation of MERS-CoV are the primary reasons why medical experts struggle in developing a vaccine, Papa explained.

Meanwhile, Tayag stressed the importance of following basic precautionary measures that will reduce the risk of infection.

He strongly recommended that Filipinos should practice frequent handwashing and covering of nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to avoid the transfer of the disease.

Specifically aiming to protect the Thomasian community, Olalia said they are focusing on the preventive measures and that they are in constant communication with DOH in disseminating information concerning the virus.

“It will take the nation and the world to prevent, control and eradicate this disease,” she said. “This means each one of us has the responsibility to keep UST, the Philippines and the world MERS-CoV-free by simply by following basic preventive measures.”


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