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As Researchers Are Stifled by Legal Hurdles, Novel Coronavirus Spreads to Tunisia, Kills 16 in Saudi Arabia

Update Date: May 21, 2013 09:58 AM EDT

Tunisia has announced three new cases and one death from the SARS-linked novel coronavirus, which has finally received a name and which has affected 40 people worldwide. Despite the fact that health officials know so little about the virus and how it is spread, research on the virus has been held back by hurdles that scientists need to overcome.

In Tunisia, the Associated Press reports that a 66-year-old man became ill from the disease after returning from a visit to Saudi Arabia. The man, a diabetic, is believed to have passed on the virus to his two adult children after his return, though some conflicting reports indicate that his daughter accompanied him on part of his voyage overseas. The man complained of breathing problems after his return and died in a hospital in Monastir.

The cases are the first for Tunisia, as the illness continues to trickle out of Saudi Arabia. So far, cases of the virus have been confirmed in France, Germany, Jordan, Qatar and the United Kingdom.

However, as AFP reports, the vast majority of the cases - 30 - have been in Saudi Arabia, which has recently reported a sixteenth death from the malady. The health ministry said that the victim was a diabetic with heart and kidney problems. Saudi Arabia also reported that the health of a nurse who had contracted the illness from patients was improving; two health workers had reportedly developed the illness after contact with patients. That admission would mark the first time that the illness had been spread to health workers after contact with patients, and has served as a bit of confirmation that the virus spreads, not just through contact with an unidentified animal, but from person to person.

However, it has been difficult to conduct research on the virus, because there are strict legalities about sharing the virus. Unlike the viruses H1N1 from Mexico and H7N9 from China, which was just given away, the CBC reports that laboratories conducting research on the virus need to sign agreements accompanied by lawyers. In fact, the scientist who first sent the virus out of the country upon his discovery of it in June was fired for his transgression. The strict transfer of the materials has stifled research on how to diagnose the virus and how it is spread.

At least one bit of progress has appeared though: the novel coronavirus has received a name. Dubbed the novel coronavirus because of its crown-like appearance under an electron microscope, LiveScience reports that the virus has been named Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

Though officials have not issued travel alerts, Saudi Arabia will be the site of pilgrimmages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which takes place during July and August this year. Both are outside the Eastern protectorate that has been the site of the largest outbreaks of the coronavirus.

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