Retired racing camels may be aiding in the spread of a newly discovered coronavirus that has killed 46 people, mostly in Saudi Arabia, a new study shows.
The findings, which were just published in the medical journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, confirm the long-held belief that the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) comes from animals, but discounts the previous theory that bats were somehow infecting humans.
After testing the blood of livestock in various countries, researchers found high levels of MERS antibodies in all 50 dromedary (Arabian) camels tested in Oman, indicating that the animals had been exposed to the virus.
So far, people who have died of MERS-related complications hailed from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and several European countries after having visited the Middle East.
But there are no reported cases of MERS infection among humans in Oman, and researchers said more testing needs to be done.
One obstacle to learning more has been getting livestock samples from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which is where the virus was first discovered last fall, said the study’s senior author, Prof. Marion Koopmans of the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment and Erasmus University in The Netherlands.
Science magazine reports:
That hypothesis needs to be followed up by investigating importation routes, Koopman says. One possibility would be to study blood samples of imported camels that are taken in some Middle Eastern countries.
“Qatar has that kind of collection, I’m told,” Koopman says. Such samples would be ideal material to find out whether the animals come to the Middle East already infected or only come into contact with the virus once there.”
The exact cause of MERS, which causes fever, cough and breathing difficulties, is still undetermined. Though it did not originally appear to spread through human to human contact, WHO later said that transmission between those in close contact with infected people was possible.
With this in mind, Saudi Arabia has restricted the number of people who can perform Hajj this year in a bid to keep MERS from spreading. Still, given that more than a million people are expected to flock to the country this October, researchers hope to have more answers about the virus before then.