Sales of face masks and hand sanitizers have reportedly soared amid growing public panic about MERS. / AFP


A spike in the number of infections from a deadly virus, which has now killed more than one hundred people in Saudi Arabia, is “concerning” but the risk to the UK remains low, health officials have said.

The Gulf kingdom has seen a significant increase in cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in the past month, with 26 cases and 10 deaths recorded over the weekend alone, bringing to the total number of deaths to 102, from 339 known cases.

The Mers virus, which is of a similar type to the SARS virus which killed hundreds in China between 2002 and 2003, has been detected in the UK four times to date, with three deaths, Public Health England said. However, the last confirmed case was in February 2013 and health officials said that there was not yet cause for significant concern in the UK.

Saudi Arabia’s health minister was dismissed last week amid growing public panic about MERS, which has seen sales of face masks and hand sanitizers reportedly soar. Concerns are particularly high in the city of Jeddah, where the majority of cases have been detected, many of them healthcare workers.

The infection causes coughing, fever and pneumonia and has been fatal in around 30 per cent of cases. It first emerged in Saudia Arabia in September 2012.

Professor Nick Phin, head of respiratory diseases at Public Health England said that the increase in infection rates could be the result of a number of factors.

“Genetic analysis of the virus from a number of the most recent cases do not support the idea that there has been a major change in the virus itself,” he said. “If this is the case then the increase could be a consequence of more active surveillance, infection control issues or some sort of, as yet unexplained, seasonality.”

While most of the cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia, small numbers have been detected in Europe and North Africa. Egypt recorded its first case on Saturday.

Scientists are still investigating how the virus is spread. It has been detected in bats and camels, with the latter now considered the most likely source of transmission to humans.