What Is MERS?

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome can cause serious symptoms

MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. It is a respiratory illness that is caused by a previously unseen variant of a coronavirus. Other coronaviruses have caused SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and COVID-19.

MERS was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Most cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Korea, and the United Arab Emirates, with some also in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Only two cases have been diagnosed in the United States.

Dromedary camel

Bruno Guerreiro / Getty Images

According to public health officials, MERS is most similar to a strain of coronavirus previously found in bats. Researchers are studying the role of bats in the origin of COVID-19 as well.

MERS may also be listed as MERS-CoV, with the “CoV” representing coronavirus. Coronaviruses are one of several types of viruses that cause colds and respiratory infections.

Symptoms and Complications

MERS is a respiratory illness, and its symptoms can be severe. They may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Just as COVID-19 symptoms can range from unnoticeable to deadly, people with MERS may experience severe symptoms, mild cold-like symptoms, or no symptoms at all. Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting may also be symptoms of MERS.

Complications of MERS can include pneumonia and kidney failure. About three or four out of every 10 people diagnosed with MERS have died.

People with chronic health problems or suppressed immune systems may be at higher risk for infection or death from the virus. These can include diabetes, chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and cancer.

MERS symptoms can be similar to those of many other respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19, the common cold, and influenza. If you have symptoms, tell your doctor if you have traveled to an area where MERS has been found.

Transmission and Diagnosis

MERS has a higher fatality rate than COVID-19. However, COVID-19 has resulted in far more deaths because it’s much more contagious. MERS does not pass easily between people unless there’s close, unprotected contact. Most of the MERS cases reported have been in health care settings.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most human cases of MERS spread from human-to-human contact. However, camels are likely to be another source of infection, since they can also carry the virus. Right now, the exact role of camels in transmitting the virus is unknown.

The CDC has developed a real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction test for MERS, and most state laboratories are approved to use the test. If cases of MERS are suspected in the United States, these tests can help public health officials with diagnosis. Further testing is also available from the CDC.

The CDC and WHO continue to try to learn more about the virus and monitor the situation as it changes.

Travel Warnings

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) haven’t issued official warnings about traveling to affected areas. However, if you experience symptoms within 14 days of traveling to an area with MERS, seek medical attention. This includes if you’ve traveled to the Middle East or Arabian peninsula.


When traveling, be sure to use common sense tips to avoid getting sick.

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you can’t wash your hands.
  • Avoid people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Be sure you are up to date with your vaccines. Check with your healthcare provider four to six weeks before travel to see if you need any additional vaccines.

If you get sick:

There are clinical trials underway for MERS vaccines, but there is much work to do. Researchers still don’t know much about the virus other than that it is severe and does appear to spread from person to person.


There is currently no specific treatment for MERS. Because it is a virus, antibiotics are ineffective, and, at this point, doctors are only able to provide supportive care to help manage the symptoms.

Many people who have been diagnosed with MERS have had very severe symptoms, and about one-third have died.

Researchers are working on trying to identify treatments for the virus and reduce the fatality rate.


MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is a type of coronavirus that can cause serious illness and even death. Its fatality rate is higher than COVID-19, but it doesn’t spread as easily between people. Most cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia. As of right now, there is no treatment for MERS.

A Word From Verywell

In most places, the risk of MERS is low. However, public health officials continue to monitor MERS to help prevent the disease from spreading. Check with your doctor if you have any questions about symptoms or preventing MERS while traveling.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zhang AR, Shi WQ, Liu K, et al. Epidemiology and evolution of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, 2012-2020. Infect Dis Poverty. 2021;10(1):66. doi:10.1186/s40249-021-00853-0

  2. World Health Organization. Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS): symptoms & complications.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC laboratory testing for Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.