Most patients experience symptoms similar to a cold with respiratory issues. With early detection and good hospital care, most patients should recover, experts said, although the worst cases lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.
The first U.S. MERS patient, an American health care worker who had been in Saudi Arabia, was released from a hospital in Indiana last week into home isolation.
When that patient’s virus was sequenced, it showed it had not changed -- much to the relief of health care workers, because there's little evidence the virus spreads in communities.
“Even in households, it doesn’t spread very well,” Perlman said. “The virus has shown very little evidence of adapting."
In fact, it’s possible that MERS has been in the human population for quite a while, and that it’s just now being detected, Perlman said.
”But if it started changing, all bets are off,” he added.
It’s almost impossible to predict when -- or even if -- a virus will adapt. The measles virus, for example, hasn’t changed in thousands of years. But SARS evolved quickly. And that, combined with the lack of treatment other than supportive hospital care, is the reason for the overcautious response to the first two cases.
The catch 22? With such a tiny number of cases, drug companies aren’t interested in developing medications.
The scare factor may prove to be the most challenging aspect of MERS, Perlman said.
“I was just in Saudi Arabia where people were wearing masks on the streets," he said. "There's zero evidence that's needed."