MERS virus: symptoms, cause, vaccination and treatment

The Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS coronavirus or MERS-CoV) is a serious respiratory infection resulting from a virus spread through animals. Most MERS patients developed a severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. About 3 to 4 out of every 10 patients die from it. Health officials first reported the disease in Saudi Arabia in September 2012. Through retrospective studies, health officials later identified the first known cases of MERS as occurring in Jordan in April 2012. Supportive treatment is necessary for individuals suffering from MERS. There is no vaccine yet in 2023, but infection with the MERS virus can be prevented through preventive measures.

  • What is MERS?
  • SARS in a nutshell
  • MERS virus spread
  • Incubation period
  • MERS virus symptoms and complaints
  • Risk groups
  • MERS virus treatment
  • Vaccination
  • Prevention and avoidance


What is MERS?

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and the Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS coronavirus or MERS-CoV) belong to the same virus family and both cause pneumonia. However, the way in which they make the patient sick differs. For example, the viruses use different ways to enter cells in the respiratory tract. Normally, coronaviruses are not very dangerous to humans and if infected, you are often left with nothing more than a harmless cold. The exception to the rule was the SARS virus, which killed more than 800 people in 2002 and the following year.

SARS in a nutshell

In 2002, the first SARS epidemic broke out in China. Nearly 10,000 people were infected and about 800 people, spread across 30 countries, died from the virus. According to Chinese research, the epidemic is said to have been caused by bats. The animals were sold at markets in Guangdong and are considered a delicacy in that region. The feces are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The virus was transmitted to humans through animals.
The incubation period of SARS is usually 2 to 7 days . The symptoms of SARS are often the following:

  • Sudden onset of fever
  • muscle strain
  • Headache
  • A sore throat
  • Persistent, dry cough
  • Respiratory complaints: shortness of breath

At first it looks a lot like a bad flu. At a later stage, the patient may suffer from pneumonia, hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and acute respiratory problems. In severe cases, artificial respiration is necessary.


MERS virus spread

It is suspected that the virus is mainly transmitted to humans by camels and dromedaries. It appears that the MERS virus is not easily transmitted from person to person. It spreads just like the flu. A patient can infect others through small droplets of saliva (which contain the virus) by coughing and sneezing. However, coronaviruses (outside the body) are quite vulnerable. These culprits do not last longer than 24 hours outside the body. You can also eliminate them quite easily with common washing and cleaning products.

Incubation period

The incubation period is the time between contracting the infection and the appearance of the first symptoms. It is not yet clear exactly how long the incubation period is. The investigated cases of illness have shown that the incubation period is in any case not longer than 10 days.

MERS virus symptoms and complaints

When you become infected with the MERS virus, you may experience various symptoms. First of all, the virus causes very serious respiratory complaints, with complaints such as severe coughing and breathing problems. This may be accompanied by fever. Diarrhea may also occur. It is unclear whether these complaints only occur in very severe cases or also in ‘normal’ cases. The virus can, among other things, lead to life-threatening infections of the respiratory tract. Kidney failure is also possible.

Risk groups

People with diabetes, kidney failure, chronic lung disease, and immunocompromised individuals are at high risk for a severe course if they acquire a MERS-CoV infection.

MERS virus treatment

There is no vaccine against MERS and antiviral drugs seem to offer little relief. Dutch hospitals have a plan in place with strict precautions if they are confronted with someone who has the above symptoms and has recently traveled to the Middle East. Healthcare workers who come into contact with these patients must wear special face masks, gloves and gowns, as well as follow a variety of other protocols to protect themselves and other patients.


In 2023, there is no vaccine to prevent a MERS-CoV infection. The American National Institutes of Health is investigating the possibility of developing a vaccine.

Wash hands regularly to prevent infection with MERS / Source: Pezibear, Pixabay

Prevention and avoidance

The following preventive measures can prevent infection:

  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and help young children do the same.
  • If soap and water are not available to wash your hands with, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • You can also sneeze or cough in the crook of your elbow.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid personal contact, such as kissing, or sharing cups or eating utensils, with sick people.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, such as doorknobs and keyboards that you share with others.


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