MERS coronavirus in 74% of Saudi Arabian camels

Scientists are making strides in unraveling the mystery of the MERS coronavirus, which so far has sickened at least 182 people, including 79 deaths.

While human cases have been traced back to September 2012, according to the World Health Organization, researchers in the United States and in Saudi Arabia have found evidence of MERS in camels going back at least 20 more years.

By taking samples from front and hind orifices of camels in all parts of Saudi Arabia, scientists found evidence of MERS in 74% of all dromedaries (single-hump camels) living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, according to a new study. “The virus we are finding in people is identical to the virus we’re finding in camels,” says Dr. Ian Lipkin, an internationally known disease detective and the director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Lipkin is the senior author of the study published Tuesday online in the open journal mBIo, the open access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

Lipkin and his team found genetic evidence of the MERS coronavirus in younger animals, rather than adult camels. Scientists discovered younger camels had a high viral load, particularly in the nasal area. So, Lipkin says, “Don’t kiss young camels, at least not on the nose.”

The study authors also believe airborne transmission is the most likely mode of spreading this virus. Lipkin says it’s “perfectly plausible that this particular virus is moving directly from camels to humans.” But how humans get the disease has not yet been determined, according to the Center for Infection and Immunity.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and medicine at Vanderbilt University, says this study “adds to the appreciation of camels playing some role – perhaps even the dominant role  – as a reservoir for this virus and as a source of infection in humans.”

Schaffner, who wasn’t involved in the study, says this study suggests a vaccine for camels may be a good way to reduce the potential spread from animals to humans. Lipkin agrees, saying if there were a vaccine for camels, “you could conceivably eradicate infection in camels.” It would also make more sense to vaccinate the dromedaries because many more of them seem to carry the virus than humans at this point.

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