MERS coronavirus infections have soared in Saudi Arabia ahead of the hajj pilgrimage, forcing the closure of a major hospital’s emergency ward in Riyadh and killing three people, officials and the press said.

The Saudi Gazette said Thursday authorities shut the emergency ward at the King Abdulaziz Medical City, one of the capital’s largest hospitals, “after at least 46 people, including hospital staff” contracted the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

The closure was confirmed to AFP by a hospital employee.

The health ministry has said it registered 21 confirmed MERS infections, all except one of them in Riyadh, between August 9 and 15.

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There was no immediate explanation for the difference in the figures.

Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said late Wednesday the hospital “has faced a spread of the coronavirus during the past few weeks, which started as one case.”

However, in remarks carried by the official SPA news agency, he gave reassurances that the cases were “still limited.”

He urged “vigilance when contacting people with respiratory illnesses” and preventive measures when visiting MERS patients.

The latest deaths occurred in Riyadh, and the victims were all Saudis aged between 65 and 86, the ministry said.

That raises to 483 the number of deaths from 1,118 MERS infections in Saudi Arabia, where the virus first appeared in 2012, according to the health ministry.

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Saudi Arabia, preparing to host more than two million Muslims from all over the world for the annual hajj pilgrimage — expected to begin on September 21 — has been worst hit by the coronavirus.

Falih said authorities have “prepared a comprehensive preventive plan starting from entry points, to hajj sites, until the pilgrims return home.”

The ministry will “dedicate all its efforts to prevent any infectious disease from spreading in the kingdom,” SPA quoted him as saying.

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Officials have declared last year’s pilgrimage as epidemic-free after the oil-rich kingdom, home to Islam’s holiest sites, engaged thousands of health workers to make sure pilgrims were protected from two deadly viruses — Ebola and MERS.

MERS is considered a deadlier but less infectious cousin of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that appeared in Asia in 2003 and killed hundreds of people, mostly in China.

Its symptoms can include fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

There are no approved vaccines against MERS, which is believed to originate in camels.

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