Saudi Arabia announced late Wednesday that five more people have died and two others are undergoing intensive treatment as a result of the new novel coronavirus (NCoV), a cousin of SARS that causes kidney failure and pneumonia. The latest in a slow trickle of information brings the mortality rate to 16 deaths among 24 known infections—and not unlike China with its bird flu outbreak, the Saudi government isn’t exactly being straightforward about how many people are sick. If humans are dying, why don’t we know more about how and why?
The Saudi Health Ministry, according to the BBC, said in a statement that it is taking “all precautionary measures for persons who have been in contact with the infected people… and has taken samples from them to examine if they are infected.” And while the Saudi news agency SPA isreporting by way of the ministry that these seven latest cases come from the eastern province, there’s one important public-safety caveat: The chief Saudi health officials aren’t making public exactly how many people are sick with NCoV. That could be to prevent fears of a massive outbreak, but this is certainly looking like a very lethal outbreak. And we appear to be receiving word slowly: The first of the infected cases was reported not by the Saudi health ministers but by the World Health Organization, which last said in March that it had been informed of 17 cases and 11 deaths. All of a sudden, the number of known human infections grew by 40 percent, to 24.
The BBC insists that “the ministry gave no details on how many people had been tested for the disease” — but as we’ve seen in other countries with other viruses, transparency can be key to find out how a virus spreads. “The strain is shrouded in mystery,” reports Agence France Presse of the new NCoV strain, “and the WHO does not yet know how it is transmitted or how widespread it is.”
Back in 2002-2003 some 800 people died of SARS, which comes from the same family as novel coronavirus. “Chinese officials covered up SARS for months, suppressing data, the location of outbreaks and access to patients by the World Health Organization, all in the hope of preventing public panic,” writes Bloomberg’s Adam Minter, who lived in China at the time. “The result was a widespread epidemic (both domestically and internationally), international embarrassment and substantial economic damages.”
Those words of warning refer to the current outbreak of H7N9 bird flu in China, which just claimed its 27th death. (If you’re doing the math, 27 of the 127 people confirmed to have contracted H7N9 have died, so the mortality rate for NCoV is higher among known cases.) But that warning could just as well apply to Saudi Arabia and its new SARSian strain. The WHO told the BBC it would offer more details about the infections on Thursday.