By Rachel Kayani
The dromedary camel of Arabia may be the source of a mysterious respiratory virus that emerged without warning last year. The Middle East respiratory syndrome cornonavirus (MERS-coV) first emerged in the Middle East last year. The virus can cause coughing, fever and severe pneumonia and can lead to kidney failure – so far there have been 94 confirmed cases and 46 deaths.
While there has been evidence of the virus spreading between humans, most cases are thought to have been caused by contact with an animal. But until now, scientists have struggled to work out which one. To try and locate which animal species could be responsible scientists have been taking blood samples from livestock animals, including camels, sheep, goats and cows, from a number of different countries.
They have now found antibodies to MERS-CoV in blood samples taken from about 50 dromedary camels living in Oman in the Arabian Peninsula. The researchers believe the results indicate that camels may be acting as a reservoir for the virus to jump the “species-barrier” to humans; camels are widely used for racing in the Middle East, as well as being used for their meat and milk. Tests have shown the MERS virus, or one that is very closely related, has been circulating in the animals, offering a potential route for the spread.
However, scientists say that more research is required to confirm the findings as antibody tests only show that an animal has been exposed to a virus, rather than still being infected. Analysing the virus from an infected animal would yield more information. Thus further tests are now needed to see if camels are chronically infected with MERS-CoV, which would suggest that they are acting as a reservoir for human infections. Researchers say they now need to test more widely to see if the infection is present elsewhere in other camel populations, especially in Saudi Arabia where the virus is the most prevalent.
In at least one patient, a man from the United Arab Emirates who was treated in Germany, there was close contact with camels. The man, who died in hospital aged 73, had owned racing camels.
Gregory Hartl, from the World Health Organization, said: “Only if we know what actions and interactions by humans lead to infection, can we work to prevent these infections.
“Data suggests that it is not yet infectious enough to pose a global threat and is still at a stage where its spread could be halted.”
As Saudi Arabia starts to make preparations for Hajj there were concerns about the MERS virus and the arrival of millions of pilgrims from around the world. However, the UN has not yet issued any travel restrictions, although it encouraged countries to raise awareness about the virus to help reduce the risk of the virus spreading among pilgrims. The WHO has advised that any travellers to Hajj who developed a respiratory illness with fever and cough severe enough to interfere with usual daily activities should minimize their contact with others to keep from infecting them, cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and report to local health services.