1

A quote from The Economist:

This divergence ripples through to customers: the difference in the cost of borrowing between German and Spanish firms rose from a mere six basis points in summer 2011 to 149 basis points earlier this year.

Would the omission of the indefinite article in such constructions (a mere X + percents/basis points/tonnes/kilometers) always be an error?

Google Books finds instances of "increased from mere" + X + percents etc. but they are rare as a hen's teeth and the authors seem to be mostly non-native English speakers, judging by (the?) surnames.

2

Yes, dropping the article would be an error.

The construction "a mere [number]" is atomic - it's the concept "six" which is being qualified by the adjective, not the quantity "six basis points". It's analogous to e.g. "a mere handful of coins".

If there were no quantity attached to the objects being described, the article would not be used, as in "We have mere seconds to spare" - although that usage is old-fashioned (and hints at pretentiousness).

2

This is one place where the article is necessary. However, if you altered the wording some, the article might no longer be necessary. Here's the original, with some words omitted for the sake of brevity:

The cost of borrowing rose from a mere six points to 149 basis points.

Taking out the a makes the sentence incorrect:

The cost of borrowing rose from mere six points to 149 basis points. [WRONG]

However, any of these would be okay:

The cost of borrowing rose from six points to 149 basis points.
The cost of borrowing rose from only six points to 149 basis points.
The cost of borrowing rose from just six points to 149 basis points.
The cost of borrowing rose from merely six points to 149 basis points.

and the inclusion of a would be wrong:

The cost of borrowing rose from a six points to 149 basis points. [WRONG]
The cost of borrowing rose from an only six points to 149 basis points. [WRONG]

As Zero said in his answer, when mere is used with a number or quantity, we use an article (as in a mere dozen). Interestingly enough, I found several online dictionaries that had examples of this (like Cambridge, Compact Oxford, and Macmillan), but none of them bothered to elaborate about that fact.

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