23 September 2020
In 2012, Saudi Arabia was the first country to report human cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The disease spread to humans from camels, causing 2538 infections and 871 deaths in 27 countries by February 2020. The majority of cases were in Saudi Arabia, and the country’s government invested considerable resources and took rapid steps to help stem the spread of the disease.
When SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, emerged in China in late 2019, countries around the world were placed on high alert as the possibility of a worldwide pandemic grew. Recognising the threat early, the Saudi Arabian government was among the first to implement precautionary measures and set up a national response committee to oversee the situation as it unfolded.
The Saudi government suspended all direct flights to and from China in early February 2020, a month before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Kingdom. By March 17, the government had taken the unprecedented decision to close the country’s mosques, except the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, and ask all Muslims to pray at home. A major concern for the government remains the regular influxes of Muslim pilgrims to key religious sites in the two cities; all social and religious gatherings such as these remain vastly limited, even after easing constraints in June.
In a recent paper published in the Journal of Infection and Public Health, Anwar Hashem at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah and co-workers including Naif Khalaf Alharbi at KAIMRC, attribute the rapid response of the Saudi government to lessons of the MERS-CoV outbreak.
The infrastructure put in place for MERS has played a key role. “After the discovery of MERS-CoV,” state the authors in their paper, “the Saudi Ministry of Health promptly established a command and control center and accelerated the establishment of the Saudi Center for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Specialized diagnostic laboratories and strict biosafety in all hospitals are critical to disease control, and more than 25 hospitals that had isolation wards for the treatment of MERS patients are now treating those with COVID-19.
Hashem’s team stress that the country must remain vigilant, though. The government must maintain stringent measures to control infection and continue investing in vaccine research in the Kingdom.
Saudi universities are working rapidly to produce a MERS-CoV vaccines. Working with global partners, they have developed a new vaccine that has been tested successfully in camels and is now being tested on humans, marking the first phase I clinical trial to be conducted in Saudi Arabia. A similar focus is now needed for SARS-CoV-2. The researchers hope to see more high containment laboratories set up in the Kingdom, and call for “more advanced industrial-scale development grants, networking between academia and industry, and better governance of research and development.”
Algaissi, A.A., Alharbi, N.K., Hassanain, M., & Hashem, A.M. Preparedness and response to COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia: Building on MERS experience. Journal of Infection and Public Health 13: 834-838 (2020) | article