MERS virus that infected Korea seen to have mutated

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MERS virus that infected Korea seen to have mutated

The Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus that infected 186 people nationwide last year was found to have undergone a mutation, local health authorities announced Friday.

Even though that could mean that the genetic variant affected the way the disease spread in Korea, which has the highest number of recorded infections outside the Middle East, officials downplayed the situation, stressing that the latest discovery “should not be deemed significant enough” to have affected the country’s infection or fatality rates.

The statement, led by the local Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), came 16 days after the country formally declared an end to the outbreak. Since Korea’s first MERS patient was confirmed on May 20, the virus claimed 38 lives, infected 186 people and quarantined nearly 16,700 last year.

In a press briefing, the CDC said that it had recently taken samples from the bodily fluids of eight former MERS patients, including patient No. 1, and subsequently discovered strain-specific variations in the spike glycoprotein when compared to other cases.

The variation of the virus strain in Korea was 0.1 percent different from the strain in Saudi Arabia, where the coronavirus has most widely spread.

The study was published in the January edition of “Emerging Infectious Diseases,” a monthly academic journal published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As to why the government believed the mutation had not affected the spread of the disease, Lee Joo-shil, the director general of the National Research Institute of Health, said that consultations with foreign scholars had convinced medical experts here that the “global consensus” was that it could not have been a key factor.

Lee Jae-myun, a micro-organism professor at Yonsei University’s College of Medicine who also worked for the government’s MERS task force last year, went further, noting that the virus is “relatively new” and that medical studies on the disease are too nascent at this point to make clear determinations on which variations have what kind of effects.

All findings at this stage, he emphasized, are primarily “based on sheer guess.”

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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