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Middle East coronavirus: No reward for man behind discovery

Dr Zaki was fired from his job for alerting the Saudi authorities to a new and unknown strain of viral infection

  • By Tariq A. Al Maeena | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 June 8, 2013
  • Gulf News

There is a new and deadly threat making its round in Saudi Arabia. It is the Mers, or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus and what makes this virus an ominous threat is that the majority of those who had contracted the disease died from it.

Saudi Arabia seems to be ground zero for the new Mers coronavirus, as more than 80 per cent of the cases involved Saudis and residents in the Kingdom. The disease is a distant relative of Sars, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome which created global concern back in 2003 when it was transmitted from animals to humans in Asia and killed some 800 people.

And not unlike Sars, the Mers virus causes an infection deep in the patient’s lungs, and infected patients end up suffering from a high fever, coughing and difficulty in breathing. Mers carries a stronger punch in that it also leads to rapid kidney failure.

Although the numbers of afflicted have been relatively small with some 40 confirmed cases so far, there is always an element of concern as four million Muslims from around the world had travelled to Saudi Arabia already this year to perform the pilgrimage known as Umrah, and public health experts are already worrying about whether the influx of pilgrims will lead to spreading Mers around the globe.

But the discovery of Mers carries a story behind it. The man behind it, Ali Mohamed Zaki, discovered the deadly pathogen last June at a microbiology lab at a private hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Zaki had been following up the case of a 60-year-old man who was admitted with a lung infection and died 18 days after symptoms started. When he couldn’t identify the virus, he sent a sample abroad to Ron Fouchier, a Dutch researcher who was able to sequence it. The report that came back was chilling. It was a coronavirus, one never seen before in humans.

He stated that he sent samples and clinical data to the Saudi health ministry, which did not act on his concerns. He also posted a warning on the international website on infectious disease reporting that had been used during the Sars outbreak - ProMED, which alerted doctors in the UK to reevaluate their diagnosis on the world’s second-known case. “It was a new kind,” Zaki said, worried about his own exposure to the virus. “I became afraid it could (spread) like Sars and I listed it on ProMed.”

Doctor Zaki is no stranger to discovering new viruses in Saudi Arabia. In 1994 he was the first specialist to correctly isolate and identify the dengue fever generators in Saudi Arabia. He found discovered another virus, a tick-borne virus that killed two people in 1995.

Rather than being honoured or felicitated for his ground-breaking discovery, Dr. Zaki was summarily summoned and fired from his job! His crime? To alert the pertinent authorities of a new and unknown strain of viral infection. As he states it, his discovery had upset officials at Saudi ministry of health. “They were very aggressive with me. They sent a team to investigate me,” he said. “And now they force the hospital administration to force me to resign.”

For whatever unexplained reasons, the ministry officials were upset at Zaki’s alerting international health organisations of a potentially fatal viral strain. “It was the president of the hospital that said they don’t want me to stay there anymore,” Zaki stated. “The hospital president told me - They are forcing me to fire you. If you come back, they will make big trouble for you and for our hospital.”

“I am not happy to be fired but I did the right thing for humanity,” Zaki said. “I don’t regret about anything.” Doctor Zaki was sent back to his home in Egypt. He said he will now assist the Egyptian government in the testing of sick people returning from the Hajj for possible infections of the MERS.

The Saudi deputy minister for public health at the health ministry, Ziad Memish justified the ministry’s displeasure with Dr. Zaki because he had “either intentionally or inadvertently not followed national established procedures”, forgetting to add that Dr. Zaki had indeed sent the same ministry samples of the virus to alert them.

Speaking to Helen Branswell, an investigative journalist with The Canadian Press and an authority on global public health and pandemic disease with whom an interview was conducted, Ziad Memish suggested that the virus could be found globally if it was being properly tested for.  “If you ask why we're picking up more cases in Saudi recently, it's because we're just looking harder and harder. We're processing hundreds of samples a day from different parts of the country. So far we sampled 1,500 or 1,700 samples in the whole of the country. I don't think any country in this world is doing that much testing. And I guess the more you look the more you'll find.  I would not be surprised if it's in every other country in the globe.”

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota was also quoted as arguing that, “Such a statement merely blames the rest of the world for the continued problems with transparency by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in responding to this public health crisis.”

This unfortunately has been the trend with some Saudi government officials who believe that being candid is giving away well-kept secrets. Better to bury their heads deep in the sand. They seem to forget that they live in a global village, and cannot isolate the Kingdom from the rest of the world.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena


Comments (1)

  1. Added 14:35 June 9, 2013

    are the established standards & procedures more than having a humanitarian crisis?

    xylo, dxb, United Arab Emirates

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