Camel Pinned as MERS Source

MERS virus case study identified camel to human transmission in Saudi Arabia

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) MERS has been causing human infections since it was first discovered in 2012, but where exactly the virus came from has remained unknown. A new study has linked the virus to camels.

The study compared samples from a deceased Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) patient and from a dromedary, or Arabian, camel that belonged to the patient.

The researchers found evidence that the infection spread from the camel to the human patient, potentially shedding new light on the nature of MERS.

"Wash your hands thoroughly after dealing with livestock."

Though suspicions and some evidence tying MERS to camels has been seen, scientist have been attempting to learn more and gain more definitive information on this new virus.

According to the authors of this new study, led by Esam I. Azhar, PhD, of the Special Infectious Agents Unit at the King Fahd Medical Research Center in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the data suggested that MERS had likely been transmitted from animals to humans multiple times, then spread from human to human.

To explore this spread, Dr. Azhar and team looked at the case of one 44-year-old patient in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia who was previously healthy until he entered the hospital on November 3, 2013 due to trouble breathing and symptoms like fever and cough that had developed over the course of several days. He died on November 18.

"The patient owned a herd of nine camels that he kept in a barn about 75 [kilometers] south of Jeddah," wrote Dr. Azhar and team. "The patient and three of his friends had been visiting the camels daily until 3 days before his admission."

According to the patient's friends, four of the camels displayed signs of illness, like nasal discharge, and the patient had applied a topical medicine to the nose of one ill camel a week before becoming ill himself.

Nasal swabs and blood samples were gathered from the patient at several points during his hospital stay. Five days after the patient was admitted to the hospital and then again 28 days later, a variety of samples, including blood samples and nasal swabs, were gathered from his nine camels.

After analyzing and comparing the samples, Dr. Azhar and team found evidence of the MERS virus in both the patient and the camel to which he had applied the medicine. The MERS samples were found to be genetically identical.

"Serologic data indicated that MERS-CoV was circulating in the camels but not in the patient before the human infection occurred," noted Dr. Azhar and team. "These data suggest that this fatal case of human MERS-CoV infection was transmitted through close contact with an infected camel."

It is important to note that this study only focused on one case. Further research is needed to continue to explore how MERS is spread.

According to the latest counts from the World Health Organization, 681 MERS cases, including 204 deaths, have been identified around the globe. 

This study was published online June 4 in the New England Journal of Medicine. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
June 5, 2014
Last Updated:
June 5, 2014