Middle East

Camels could be carriers of deadly MERS virus: Researchers

Camels could be carriers of deadly MERS virus: Researchers
The WHO welcomed the findings, but said it did not reveal the source of the MERS virus or how humans become affected by it. Photo: AP
Published: 4:03 AM, August 10, 2013
Updated: 7:20 AM, August 12, 2013

LONDON — People infected with a deadly virus that emerged in Saudi Arabia last year may have caught it from one-humped camels used in the region for meat, milk, transport and racing.

In a study into what kind of animal “reservoir” may be fuelling the outbreak in humans, scientists said they had found strong evidence that it is widespread among dromedary camels in the Middle East.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), which can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia, has been reported in people in the Gulf, France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Britain. MERS is part of a family of coronaviruses that can cause the common cold as well as SARS, which sparked a global outbreak in 2003.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said 46 people have died out of a total 94 confirmed cases, the majority in Saudi Arabia.

“As new human cases of MERS-CoV continue to emerge, without any clues about the sources of infection except for people who caught it from other patients, these new results suggest that dromedary camels may be one reservoir,” said Ms Chantal Reusken of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven, the Netherlands, who led the study. “There are different types of contact of humans with these animals that could lead to transmission of a virus.”

Experts not involved in the study hailed its findings as a step towards solving the mystery of the MERS virus and, ultimately, controlling it.

The WHO welcomed the study, but said it had not provided any insight into how humans become infected.

“What this study has shown is antibodies in the camels, that means that camels have been infected at some point in time, and that produced antibodies,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told a news briefing in Geneva yesterday. “Now, to be sure that this is the same MERS coronavirus as it is in humans, we need to find the virus itself, not antibodies. So this would be the next step, to find the virus and identify it as the same one.”

Other animal species may also be infected, he said.

“So basically it gives us some clue and direction to go, but we still don’t know what is the source of the virus and, most importantly, we still don’t know what kind of exposure makes humans (become) infected,” he said. REUTERS