Do Camels Hold the Key to MERS?

MERS virus and camel connection a possibility according to new study

(RxWiki News) The MERS virus has been a big question mark for health officials around the globe. Many important questions still need to be answered about the new virus. Where did it come from? How does it spread? What steps will help prevent it?

A team of researchers attempted to answer one of these questions: where does MERS come from? The researchers honed in on a potential animal link.

Their study found evidence of a related virus in camels, suggesting that these animals may be possible carriers of MERS. 

"Use a tissue when coughing or sneezing."

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) first started making people ill in September 2012. According to the August 1st update from the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been a total of 94 confirmed infections with MERS around the globe. Forty-six of the infected patients have died. 

The bulk of the infections have occurred in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East.

This new study, led by Chantal Reusken, PhD, of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven, the Netherlands explored the possibility of a connection between the virus and animals.

According to the study's authors, "Anecdotal exposure histories suggest that patients had been in contact with dromedary camels or goats."

To investigate this possible connection and explore the possibility of an animal reservoir of MERS (meaning the animals are carriers of the virus, but not visibly ill), the researchers examined the presence of antibodies to MERS in the blood serum of different types of livestock.

Dr. Reusken and team gathered samples from 80 cattle, 40 sheep, 40 goats, 155 dromedary camels (also known as the Arabian camel) and from 34 other animals in the camel family.

The animals were separated into two groups based on location — the Middle East and elsewhere. Those from the Middle East came from Oman and the other animals came from Spain, the Netherlands and Chile. 

The researchers tested the blood serum samples of the animals looking for evidence of MERS and other coronaviruses. 

Results showed that 100 percent of the sampled serum from Omani camels (50 out of 50) had protein-specific antibodies for MERS. Of the Spanish camels, the same was true for 14 percent (15 out of 105).

Dr. Reusken and team found no evidence of antibodies for MERS in the other animals tested. 

"MERS-CoV or a related virus has infected camel populations," the study authors concluded. As the camels came from different locations around Oman, the researchers also noted that their data suggests widespread infection of the camels in that area. 

This presence of a related virus in camel populations suggests that there might be a connection to MERS in humans, and that camels are possibly a reservoir for the virus.

Further research is needed to confirm these findings and explore the possibility of a connection between the MERS virus and camels. The study authors suggested that detailed case histories of MERS patients be gathered and examined for potential exposure to camels as one first step.

This study was published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases on August 8. Several of the study authors have a patent pending related to the MERS virus.

Review Date: 
August 8, 2013