The Threat of Unknown Microbes

By Jennifer Stearns, Michael Surette

Perhaps one of the most frightening and nastiest of the microbes may be the ones people don’t know about and can’t prepare for. Organizations like the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are constantly on the alert for new emerging pathogens, yet these pathogens can still appear without warning.

The lack of vaccines or therapies to deal with these new threats to human health makes them very dangerous. Two recent examples of zoonotic viral outbreaks are good examples of this.

In 2002, an outbreak of an unusual pneumonia, which became known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), infected more than 8,700 people and killed almost 800 in southern China. It spread within weeks to 37 countries.

Many of the deaths were in medical staff treating patients before the nature of the epidemic had been established. Infections from the SARS-coronavirus had a mortality of almost 10 percent. Almost as quickly as it emerged, the epidemic was contained; it’s now considered a rare disease.

This zoonotic virus likely made the jump to humans associated with the wild animal trade and has been found in civets, raccoon dogs, and ferret badgers.

In 2012, the first case of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was described in Saudi Arabia, caused by the MERS-coronavirus. It is believed to have originated in camels.

The numbers of MERS cases are slowly increasing (unlike the rapid emergence of SARS). Although MERS may not become as severe a threat as SARS was, another SARS or much worse is out there waiting for an opportunity to jump to a new host.