Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Camels may be the MERS virus host

MERS-CoV particles as seen by negative stain electron microscopy.

MERS-CoV particles as seen by negative stain electron microscopy.

Cynthia Goldsmith/Maureen Metcalfe/Azaibi Tamin/CDC

As the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) continues spreading, scientists have been searching for the intermediate host that might carry this virus and transmit it to humans.

The MERS virus belongs to a family that is usually found in bats. Some scientists argue that there might not be an intermediate host, and that it probably makes its way to humans from food contaminated by bat dropping or saliva. However, a group of researchers have tested blood samples from several animals, including cattle, sheep, goats and race camels, and suggest the camels – which come from Oman – may be the elusive intermediate host.

The researchers tested the blood samples from these animals for the virus antibodies, which, if positive, is an indication the animal may have been infected with the virus in the past. All 50 of the race camels from Oman tested positive for the antibodies – as well as 14% of Spanish camels. The researchers suggest that, based on the results, either MERS or something very similar has infected camel populations, publishing their results in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Given the Oman samples come from different locales, the virus is probably widespread across the country.

Other Middle Eastern countries that have had widespread MERS infections, such as  Saudi Arabia (where it was originally discovered) and Qatar, refused to cooperate with the researchers, reports Science.

Many Middle Eastern countries consume a lot of camel meat. The region often imports camels from Africa and Australia for local consumption. According to Science, the camels could have been infected by bats in Africa or Australia and carried the disease to the Middle East. Alternatively, they may have actually been infected in the Middle East. To be able to prove which scenario is true, the researchers suggest that the blood samples of imported camels needs to be tested at importation.

Until the actual virus is isolated from camels, the researchers cannot be 100% sure the infection is actually MERS-CoV and not something closely related. To start searching, they would ideally need to find herds of the camels where some of the animals have developed the antibodies and others did not. Those without the antibodies might still be carrying the virus, and would offer a conclusive answer to whether these race camels are, indeed, the intermediate host of the virus.

Meanwhile, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) have met twice last month and stated that the MERS-CoV outbreak does not yet meet the standards to label it a pandemic or an international public health emergency similar to the SARS virus in 2003.



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