Health and Science

MERS: What you need to know

Students wearing face masks in Seoul on Monday, June 8, 2015.
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

South Korea reported eight new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and a seventh death on Tuesday. So, how worried should we be, not just about the country's already troubled economy but also the possibility MERS could spread across the Asia Pacific region? We examine the key facts.

What's the latest news?

South Korea's health ministry said on Tuesday there were eight new cases of MERS, bringing the total to 95 but representing a sharp fall in the number of daily new cases from 23 reported on Monday.

The ministry also said a patient infected with the MERS virus has died, becoming the seventh fatality in an outbreak that began in May after a businessman brought the illness home from a trip to the Middle East. South Korea is suffering the second-highest MERS infection rate in the world, after Saudi Arabia.

Elsewhere in Asia, China's Guangdong province reported an infection in late May where a South Korean man diagnosed with the illness lied about his condition when flying to the mainland.

The surge in reported cases has taken Seoul and its Asian neighbors by surprise since the disease has remained largely confined to the Gulf region since its discovery three years ago.

What is MERS?

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is the virus that causes the respiratory illness known as MERS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus is likely to have originated in animals, having been detected in camels in several countries. The first reports of humans having contracted the MERS-CoV virus emerged in 2012 in Saudi Arabia.

Presently, there is no known cure or vaccine to stop the virus.

Three to four out of every 10 people diagnosed with the illness have died, the CDC said. Common symptoms include fever, coughing, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhea and nausea.

Exactly how contagious is it?

Like many other coronaviruses, MERS-CoV tends to spread from an infected person's respiratory secretions, like coughing. Close contact, such as living with an infected person, is also likely to spread infection.

People with diabetes, renal failure, and chronic lung disease are considered to be at high risk of severe disease from MERS-CoV infection, the World Health Organization said in recent a statement.

Do we need to fear a global outbreak?

MERS is not a worldwide threat, according to healthcare experts.

"For a virus to go pandemic, it must be able to spread easily between people... but MERS-CoV is primarily an animal virus," Declan Butler, senior reporter of renowned scientific magazine Nature, wrote in an article last Friday.

The virus can only spread between people in hospitals, he added. And even then, it spreads very poorly and can be controlled by public-health measures, which South Korean authorities are pursuing aggressively, he noted.

"Were cases springing up around South Korea outside of hospital settings, that would be cause for alarm - but they are not."

The disease's resemblance to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has sparked memories of the latter's 2002-2003 outbreak and triggered fears that MERS could cause a similar eruption. But the coronavirus that caused SARS had the ability to spread easily between people, while MERS-CoV does not, Butler argued.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council of Foreign Relations, echoed that view in a recent blog post.

"Compared to many infectious diseases, MERS has only limited human to human transmission. The virus is not airborne...On average, one MERS case will lead to 0.6 to 0.7 secondary cases, which makes the virus transmission rate much lower than SARS (on average two to five secondary cases per patient) or Ebola (on average one to two secondary cases per patient)."

But other countries aren't taking any risks, right?

Several countries in the region have taken precautionary measures in response to the outbreak. Malaysia has warned its citizens to avoid South Korea while Hong Kong issued a red alert against non-essential travel on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Korean news media have reported that Chinese tourists are cancelling planned package trips.

What's the impact on Korea?

Over 2,000 South Korean schools have been closed and thousands of visitors have cancelled their travel plans in the past few weeks. President Park Geun-hye has called for a national effort to halt the spread and in a speech on Monday, finance minister Choi Kyung-hwan provided assurance that the government would take swift action to mitigate any negative economic impact.

"There are two main channels through which Korea's economy could be affected. First, consumer spending will be curtailed as people avoid public areas such as shops and restaurants to reduce the risk of infection. Second, tourism will suffer as travel bookings are cancelled," said Krystal Tan, Asia economist at Capital Economics in a note. She believes the outbreak will prompt the Bank of Korea to cut rates at its policy review Thursday since the disease comes at a time when domestic demand remains weak and exports continue to struggle.

While tourism-related Korean companies like Hotel Shilla are likely to suffer the most, the magnitude of impact remains modest at below 10 percent downside to 2015 operating profit, said Deutsche Bank in a report.

The negative sentiment has taken a hit on Korean financial markets, with the benchmark Kospi index selling off by more than 2 percent month-to-date. However, if the virus is contained within the following few months, the economic impact will be short-term and shares will rebound, Deutsche Bank added.

Data out today from the Korean Finance Ministry showed that annual sales at South Korea's department and discount stores both rose in May for the first time in three months. But the government said MERS threatened the country's recovery by building uncertainty on top of a weakened yen and a sluggish global economy.

The finance ministry added it would work towards stabilizing markets in a pre-emptive manner in case of external shocks.