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One paragraph that explains why we know so little about the MERS virus

Disinfection workers wearing protective gears spray antiseptic solution in Sejong Cultural Center amid rising public concerns over the spread of MERS in Seoul, South Korea.
Disinfection workers wearing protective gears spray antiseptic solution in Sejong Cultural Center amid rising public concerns over the spread of MERS in Seoul, South Korea.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Experts have been keeping an eye on the deadly MERS virus for its pandemic potential ever since they first discovered it in Saudi Arabia three years ago. And an ongoing outbreak in South Korea that has killed 19 people is reminding us it's still a threat.

But as one local health official told Nature, the virus's emergence in Seoul is also a reminder "that there are huge gaps in knowledge of the MERS coronavirus." Researchers still don't know exactly how MERS spreads, how long people remain infectious, or how best to treat those who get the virus. There's no cure or vaccine, either.

In a fascinating piece for Integrated Regional Information Networks,  infectious diseases reporter Helen Branswell explains one reason this gap is much bigger than it should be by now:

Egyptian virologist Ali Zaki teamed up with the Netherlands’ renowned Erasmus Medical Center to identify the virus that had sickened and killed a Saudi Arabian man in June 2012. That it was Zaki, not the Saudi health ministry, who revealed the existence of the new SARS-like virus turned out to be impolitic. He was quickly stripped of his Saudi job and left the country.

Since then, "[i]nformation about MERS has systematically either been hoarded, mishandled or perhaps not even collected at all," she writes. "That has left the world still unable to answer key questions about MERS and how it occasionally infects people."

Branswell is getting at the absolutely critical role countries play in sharing data about viruses within their borders and the outbreaks they cause.

Oftentimes, countries either don't have adequate resources to track and disseminate information about outbreaks (as we saw with Ebola) or they're afraid to admit to problems out of fear that other countries will impose travel and trade restrictions.

To date, the country that has seen the most MERS cases — Saudi Arabia — hasn't been transparent, and this information hoarding puts everyone at risk.

Read Branswell's piece for a sense of exactly what's at stake.