On May 14th, following a meeting of its International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that it was not, for now, declaring MERS a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (commonly known as a PHEIC). Given the acceleration and growing globalization of the virus, some health experts questioned that decision.

Many wondered if it was politically motivated—having targeted one predominantly Islamic country (Pakistan) with polio-related travel restrictions, the WHO may be leery of offending a second. Instead it simply offered some guidelines: improve and implement national policies for infection prevention at health-care facilities; raise public awareness; share more information; and so on. The same day, signs warning travellers about MERS started appearing in some American international airports.

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Anyone who believes a few hundred cases of MERS worldwide isn’t a Big Problem wasn’t paying attention when SARS roamed free. With the start of the vacation season, Ramadan events from late June to late July, and the gathering of millions of Muslims at the haj in early October, the number of cases may swiftly move into the thousands. Ms Garrett also worries about what might happen if the virus gets a foothold in institutions such as elementary schools or nursing homes—which, like hospitals, have a lot of people in close proximity, and where infections spread readily.

On one estimate, the global cost of SARS in 2003 alone was up to $54 billion. Given its deadlier (and hence scarier) nature, MERS could prove even more costly.

Worse, a MERS vaccine is unlikely to be available any time soon, optimistic press releases from drug companies and research labs notwithstanding. For one thing, it will take years for any effective vaccine to be tested and then approved by regulators. For another, recall that MERS is a close relative of SARS. Eleven years on, there is still no SARS vaccine in sight.

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