By Cesar Bianconi, CNN • Updated 24th September 2018
South Korea has announced its first deaths linked to the fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus.
Eight people have now died following exposure to the MERS-CoV virus, bringing the total number of suspected cases in South Korea to 59, according to public health officials.
Many had traveled to the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah, where the MERS-CoV virus originated in 2012.
Two of the deaths have been confirmed as probable because the virus was not present on their bodies, while four had tested positive for MERS-CoV — an illness with similar symptoms to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that emerged in Asia in 2003, killing 775 people.
Two cases were also confirmed in patients suffering from other illnesses, including severe skin infections.
No direct link has been established between these cases and Saudi Arabia.
(See below for a timeline of the MERS-CoV outbreak in South Korea.)
MERS-CoV was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, but is now considered endemic to Middle Eastern countries, particularly the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, Eastern Europe and parts of North Africa.
While the MERS-CoV virus cannot be transmitted from person to person, it can be spread to other members of the same household or group of people.
This process is largely governed by the body’s immune response, particularly the body’s T-cells.
Eventually these T-cells become activated to recognize the virus, and later express antibodies against it, according to the WHO.
The current outbreak in South Korea marks the second case of MERS-CoV reported in the country this year after a South Korean man on a flight back to Korea from Riyadh reportedly became infected.
This time, an employee of a hospital treating the infected man, Kim Kyung-su, was reportedly infected when he became ill.
Kim died at the hospital on September 20.
Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) have visited South Korea to assist in the investigation, its first such mission to the Asian country.
International travel is highly associated with MERS-CoV infections, and it is unusual for other cases to be reported outside of a passenger’s travel itinerary, according to the WHO.