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Difference Between COVID-19, SARS and MERS

Team AckoDec 20, 2023

A new virus and disease outbreak in Wuhan, China detected in December 2019 gathered pace and spread across several other countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic in early March 2020, terming it as “global spread of a new disease”. But the term coronavirus is not new, you may have heard of the term during the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012.

All three diseases are caused by coronaviruses and there are other types of human coronaviruses. But what is the difference between COVID-19, SARS and MERS if they are caused by coronaviruses? This article explores the similarities and differences between the diseases.

What is Coronavirus?

Difference Between COVID-19, SARS and MERS

As per the WHO, it defines coronaviruses as a family of viruses responsible for illness in humans or animals. The term Corona means “crown” in Latin which is derived by the spiky projections on viruses’ surface resembling crowns. These viruses are known to cause mild to severe respiratory diseases such as common cold to viral pneumonia. You can learn more about the novel coronavirus here.



What is SARS? (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome):

The outbreak of a coronavirus in 2003 was identified as SARS-CoV which is assumed to have transmitted through an animal virus from bats and then spread to civet cats. It was first found to have infected humans in 2002 in China as reported by the WHO.

Symptoms of SARS:

  • Cough

  • Fatigue or Malaise

  • Headache

  • Diarrhoea

  • Cold Shivers

  • Body Pains Or Aches

The illness can worsen to shortness of breath even leading to pneumonia.

Transmission of SARS:

The outbreak resulted in more than 8000 cases spread over 26 countries in 2003. The transmission was found to be from person to person and it occurred during the second week of illness. While the outbreak was severe in the health care settings, it was brought under control after the implementation of better practices of infection control.

Vaccination For SARS:

Currently, there are several partners working with the WHO on developing experimental vaccination for the SARS.

Risk Factors of SARS:

Currently, there are no areas which have reported cases of SARS except for some accidents in laboratories in Chinese Taipei and Singapore as well as one from southern China. However, the source of infection is not determined yet in the area of southern China.

Also, read: Coronavirus Helpline Number, India

What is COVID-19? (Coronavirus Disease 2019):

A new, unknown virus was found to have infected humans in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The infectious disease spread globally before the WHO declared it a pandemic in early March 2020. This was later named COVID-19. It was also known as the “2019 novel coronavirus”. The virus was named SARS-CoV-2 to differentiate it from other coronaviruses.

Symptoms of COVID-19:

  • Dry Cough

  • Fever

  • Tiredness

  • Some patients may have:

Severe infection may lead to viral pneumonia.

Transmission of COVID-19:

The outbreak of COVID-19 spread rapidly across most continents even taking the lives of several people across geographies. COVID-19 spreads from a person who is infected with the virus. It can spread through droplets discharged from the mouth or nose when a person coughs or sneezes. This discharge lands on surfaces and objects. Touching these objects or surfaces can transmit the virus.

Vaccination For COVID-19:

As per WHO, vaccination or specific medicine for the treatment or prevention of the novel coronavirus are yet to be found effective. There are researches and the developments being carried out for a vaccine to curb the spread of the deadly virus. They are currently being tested through clinical trials before they can be found to be effective in the treatment of the disease.

In case you are affected by the virus, take medical care to treat the illness and those with severe illness are required to be hospitalised. To protect yourself and others, wash your hands with soap and water frequently, cover your cough with a tissue or your elbow. Also, maintain Social Distancing.

Risk Factors of COVID-19:

While people of all ages can be affected by COVID-19, it has been found that symptoms and infection of virus can affect people with:

  • Heart ailments

  • Asthma

  • Diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • Older people can be affected as well.

Also, read: Ways To Remain Healthy During Social Distancing

What is MERS? (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome):

In 2012, a novel coronavirus was identified in Saudi Arabia and the virus was named MERS-CoV. The virus was found to be transmitted between animals and humans and affected people from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. While the origins of this virus are still not ascertained, as per WHO, it may have originated from bats and then camels.

Symptoms of MERS:

Transmission of MERS:

While the root cause of transmission from animals to humans is not confirmed, it has been found that dromedary camels are a major source of MERS. As for human to human transmission, it is found that it does not pass easily unless there is close contact with the infected person. Cases of persons infected by MERS outside the Middle East are those who have travelled from the Middle East to other countries.

Vaccination For MERS:

There is no vaccine developed for the treatment of MERS; however, several vaccines and treatments are under development. Currently, the treatment of the disease is supportive and based on the affected person’s clinical condition. People with medical conditions such as diabetes, chronic lung disease and renal failure should avoid close contact with dromedary camels, eating camel meat, drinking camel urine or raw camel milk that has not been cooked properly.

Risk Factors of MERS:

At the end of January 2020, a total of 2519 cases have been reported. However, the majority of cases were reported from Saudi Arabia in 2012. The WHO has said that people of all ages can contract the MERS disease, especially people with:

  • Diabetes

  • Renal failure

  • Chronic lung disease

  • Compromised immune system

Comparison Between COVID-19, SARS and MERS:

Now that you have understood most aspects of these coronaviruses, below is the comparison between COVID-19, SARS and MERS:

Name of the Virus (Pathogen)SARS-CoV-2SARS-CoVMERS-CoV
SymptomsFeverDry CoughShortness of BreathFatigueFeverDry CoughBody Aches and PainsMalaiseShortness of BreathHeadacheFeverDry CoughShortness of BreathDiarrhoeaNausea or Vomiting
Vaccination*No VaccineNo VaccineNo Vaccine
TransmissionDroplets discharged through cough or sneeze.By touching infected objects or surfaces.Droplets discharged through cough or sneeze.By touching infected objects or surfaces.Droplets discharged through cough or sneeze.By touching infected objects or surfaces.
Treatment**Supportive Medical CareSupportive Medical CareSupportive Medical Care
Mortality Rate3% to 4%About 11%About 34%
Risk GroupsPeople aged 65 years and above.People of all ages with medical conditions.People aged 65 years and above.People of all ages with medical conditions.People aged 65 years and above.People of all ages with medical conditions.
Average Incubation Period1 to 14 Days4 to 5 Days6 to 7 Days

* & ** At the end of March 2020, there was no vaccination or treatment.

COVID-19, SARS and MERS are all caused by coronaviruses. There are several similarities between each of the coronaviruses; however, there are also some differences. While COVID-19 cases range from mild to severe, SARS and MERS cases were found to be more severe. 

However, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads more easily and there are some differences in the symptoms between the three viruses.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Here are some FAQs about COVID-19, SARS and MERS:

Can I travel to the Arabian Peninsula or to the Middle East countries where MERS cases were reported?


There are no travel restrictions due to the MERS epidemic in the Middle Eastern countries or the Arabian Peninsula.

Are MERS and SARS the same?


No. Both are not the same. However, both the viruses are from the family of coronaviruses with different strains. The WHO is still determining the origin of both viruses.

Which coronavirus has the highest mortality rate? MERS or SARS or COVID-19?


The mortality rate is based on the number of cases and number of deaths associated with the disease. Compared to SARS, MERS has a higher mortality rate. However, the mortality rate of COVID-19 infection is still too early to predict as positive cases continue to be reported from across the globe.

What are the types of coronaviruses?


They are a diverse group of viruses which can cause illness such as common cold to severe diseases such as MERS, SARS and COVID-19.

Is the coronavirus disease zoonotic?


A virus is considered zoonotic if the virus is transmitted between animals and humans. Yes. The WHO has declared coronavirus as zoonotic.

Is coronavirus new?


Coronaviruses are not new to humans as they date back to the early 20th century. New strains can be isolated from the existing virus resulting in new or novel coronavirus such as COVID-19, SARS and MERS.

Are COVID-19, SARS and MERS considered as diseases?


Yes. All three are considered as an infectious disease caused by coronaviruses.


  • Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19), World Health Organization,

  • SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), World Health Organization,

Disclaimer: *Except for exclusions like maternity benefits, undisclosed diseases, etc. Please check policy wordings for more details.
**The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. It is based on industry experience and several secondary sources on the internet; and is subject to changes. Please go through the applicable policy wordings for updated ACKO-centric content and before making any insurance-related decisions.

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