Saudi Arabia will not issue Haj visas this year for the Muslim elderly and people with chronic diseases in a bid to prevent the spread of the MERS coronavirus during the upcoming pilgrimage season, the Health Ministry said on Saturday.

As many as 38 people have died of the SARS-like coronavirus in Saudi Arabia since September, according to health authorities.

The new restrictions are applicable to the upcoming Haj pilgrimage to Mecca in October and subsequent minor pilgrimages, Ministry spokesman Khalid al-Mirghalani told the Saudi newspaper Arab News.

The official did not set an age limit, but said the elderly who were medically unfit to travel would not be considered for pilgrimage visas.

Millions of Muslims flock every year to holy sites in Saudi Arabia to perform the Haj, making it one of the world’s biggest annual gatherings.

The strain of coronavirus, called MERS-CoV, was first discovered in 2012 in a man in Saudi Arabia.

France, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Tunisia and Britain have also reported infections.

Coronavirus belongs to the same group of viruses as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed about 800 people 10 years ago.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed a total of 80 MERS cases worldwide, including 45 deaths.

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