By Courtney Trenwith
Discussions planned as new infections take six-day toll to 49, with health experts worried the deadly virus is becoming increasingly difficult to contain
An international group of experts is to hold talks in Saudi Arabia on the possibility of manufacturing a vaccine against Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
Dr Khalid Marghalani, a spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Health, announced the imminent arrival of the company in the kingdom as the number of new cases soared.
He said in a statement, carried by Saudi Press Agency, that the ministry called on the World Health Organisation and a group of experts from Europe, Canada, the US, East Asia, the GCC states and other countries to meet at the end of this month to discuss the status of the virus.
The move comes as Saudi Arabia has reportedly confirmed 20 new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the past two days.
The new infections take the total to 49 in less than a week, local media said.
Virus experts have warned in recent days they are becoming increasingly concerned about the pace at which the fatal disease is spreading and the fact it is being passed between humans.
The Saudi Health Ministry said 244 people have been diagnosed in the kingdom with MERS, including 75 who have died.
However, Health Minister Abdullah Al Rabeeah reportedly said there was no scientific evidence to justify ordering additional preventative measures, such as travel restrictions.
He was unable to explain the recent spate of infections in Jeddah, where a hospital closed its emergency department after two health workers were infected, but said it could be a seasonal pattern because there also was a rise in infections at the same time last year.
While MERS has not spread as fast at its related virus SARS, the higher death rate – about one in three - has some health experts concerned it is becoming increasingly difficult to contain.
"It is always a worry if sustained human-to-human transmission of a newly identified virus occurs," Ian Mackay, a virologist affiliated with the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Center at the University of Queensland, told Associated Press last week.
"We can only hope that the current hot zone, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, soon gets ahead of the outbreak through proactive action.
"It seems that infection prevention and control has broken down in these health care outbreaks and this will need to be addressed throughout the region."
Al Rabeeah said of the 13 new infections reported on Sunday, seven were in Jeddah, four in Riyadh and one each in Madinah and Najran.
He played down the death rate, saying the number of fatalities among paramedics had declined, while the overall rate had almost halved from 60 to 32 percent.
“The situation is under control,” Al Rabeeah was quoted by Arab News as saying.
“The ministry has conducted tests on more than 2000 suspected cases and we want to provide accurate information to the public in full transparency.”
MERS was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in September 2012. Its symptoms include fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure.
The Health Ministry has said an international pharmaceutical company would soon visit the kingdom to explore the possibility of manufacturing a vaccines for the virus.
Neighbouring Bahrain, which has not officially recorded any MERS infection, also is stepping up measures to detect the virus and prevent it from spreading.
Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa ordered authorities to “do whatever necessary to protect public health”, Gulf Daily News reported on Monday.
The health ministry had drawn up an epidemiological surveillance contingency plan and sent circulars to all clinics and public and private hospitals on diagnosing the disease, quarantining positive cases and collecting samples for lab tests, Prince Khalifa said.
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