In 2020, the term coronavirus unfortunately became all too familiar in day-to-day conversations in reference to Covid-19. However, Covid-19 is not the only coronavirus to exist and pose a threat to global public health. MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus) is another type of coronavirus that can cause severe respiratory illness.

Why did this work happen?

MERS is a rare but often severe respiratory virus that tends to start with a fever and cough but can develop into pneumonia and breathing difficulties. Around 40% of those who contract the virus die of complications. It is most often found in the Middle East as camels can harbour the virus and infect humans when they come into close contact.

There are many illnesses that are seen frequently enough in England that we have clear, well-rehearsed processes in place for when they occur. However, MERS occurs so rarely in England that we need to be more prepared and rigorous about spotting and preventing it from spreading around the country early on.

In August 2018, the first case of MERS in England since 2013 was confirmed in an individual in Leeds who had recently travelled between the UK and Middle East.

How was data used?

The ability to identify threats with pandemic potential as quickly as possible relies on quickly and efficiently sharing data with the right people.

After suspecting MERS and isolating the patient, the healthcare staff at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust immediately informed Yorkshire and Humber Health Protection Team. A throat swab was sent to one of Public Health England’s (now UK Health Security Agency) specialist laboratory for testing, where scientists confirmed a positive result within 24 hours.

It was important that this data was shared with experts from partner agencies like NHS Trusts and the Department of Health and Social Care so that they could agree the necessary actions to treat the patient but also protect wider public health. Notified experts were able to give specialist advice on how to care for the individual and to prevent further cases of the disease occurring, including contact tracing. Global agencies like the World Health Organization were also informed, allowing them to be prepared should it have appeared that cases were spreading.

What were the benefits?

If the data was not shared, the disease may have continued to spread, potentially leading to a pandemic like what occurred with Covid-19. These well-established processes in data sharing ensure that when a case of MERS is confirmed, we can react quickly and efficiently, reducing the risk of global pandemics. UKHSA is also able to track data about international MERS cases to help with planning and preparations back in the UK.

The individual who had the confirmed MERS diagnosis recovered from their infection four weeks later and was able to leave hospital and return to their family in the Middle East.

Who funded and collaborated on this work?

The full coordinated response to the case involved over 100 people working across Public Health England (now UKHSA) and NHS staff, including roles in contact tracing, infection control advice and laboratory testing. UKHSA continues to carry out surveillance on data related to diseases like MERS as part of its statutory functions to protect public health.

Where can I go for more information?

UKHSA Blog: Disease detectives – how a case of MERS in England was detected, traced and treated

UKHSA Statutory functions