A disease so new it was only named and described in a scientific journal two weeks ago poses a "threat to the entire world," according to Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), who made the remark at the organization's annual conference this week.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus or MERS has been confirmed in 49 people to date, five of which were reported this week. Of those 49 cases, 24 people have died. The most recent death occurred on May 28, when a French man who contracted the virus in Dubai passed away in his native country. His hospital roommate has also contracted MERS. The virus — which produces SARS-like symptoms such as fever, coughing and shortness of breath — was first observed in the summer of 2012.

Chan called the coronavirus her "greatest concern" of all diseases around the world. "We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat," she said. "Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control. These are alarm bells and we must respond. The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself. The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world."

According to a May 17 WHO update on the virus, MERS "is thought to be of animal origin and to be sporadically transmitted to humans through an as yet unknown route. However, it is clear that the virus can also be transmitted between humans. So far, human-to-human transmission has only been observed in health care facilities and close family contacts and sustained transmission in the community has not been observed." Since many of the people who have contracted MERS have also experienced other health problems unrelated to the virus, WHO says "increased susceptibility from underlying medical conditions may play a role in transmission."

The virus is so new that it has gone by a few names in the year since it was first discovered. The scientists who named it MERS acknowledge that it is unusual to name a virus after a region of the world, as it can be stigmatizing to that region, but the name has been endorsed by the WHO and the Saudi Ministry of Health. "It's good for communication that the field has found a name that is supported by many," Raaol De Groot, chair of the WHO's Coronavirus Study Group, told ScienceInsider. "At the moment, there are more important issues with regard to MERS and MERS-CoV to focus on."

To date MERS cases have been identified in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The European cases all have "direct or indirect connection to the Middle East" and involved either people who traveled to the region or people who came into contact with those travelers, according to the WHO.

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Middle Eastern virus called 'threat to entire world' by World Health Organization
The emerging MERS virus, first seen in 2012, has killed dozens of people to date.