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Scientists find first definitive proof MERS disease infects camels

Researchers cannot conclude whether the humans on the farm where a recent outbreak took place were infected by the camels or vice versa.

Image: shutterstock

RESEARCH BY SCIENTISTS in the Netherlands and Qatar have found that a small livestock barn in Qatar was the location of an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in 2013.

The Lancet published results by researchers who used gene-sequencing techniques to show that three camels were infected at the site where two humans contracted MERS-CoV.


The barn’s owner, a 61-year-old man, was diagnosed with MERS-CoV infection and a 23-year-old male employee of the barn was also infected.

Within a week of the barn’s owner being diagnosed with MERS, the Supreme Council of Health and Ministry of Environment in Qatar, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO), conducted a comprehensive investigation, collecting clinical samples, including nasal swabs, blood and rectal swabs, as well as stool samples from 14 dromedary camels present at the barn.

The samples were then sent to laboratories in the Netherlands for genetic analysis and antibody testing.

Comprehensive genetic analysis of the samples confirmed the presence of MERS-CoV in three camels. The study also found that the virus sequences were very similar, although not identical,  to those identified in the two humans at the site.

All 14 of the camels tested had antibodies to MERS-CoV, suggesting that the virus might have been circulating among the animals for some time, allowing most of them to build up immune protection against infection.

According to the authors, they said this is “definitive proof that camels can be infected with MERS-CoV” but said they cannot conclude whether the humans on the farm were infected by the camels or vice versa.

They added that a further possibility remains that humans and camels could have been infected from a third as yet unknown source. While additional sequencing may be giving slightly more resolution, there are other reasons why even that most likely will not give conclusive evidence.

“The big unknown is the exact timing of infections, both in the persons and in the camels,” they said.

The said:

We cannot rule out that other common livestock species including cattle, sheep and goats, or other animals including wildlife species are involved in the spread of MERS-CoV.

Neil Ferguson and Maria Van Kerkhove, of Imperial College London said: “An understanding of the role of animals in the transmission of MERS-CoV is urgently needed to inform control efforts. This virus can spread from person to person, sometimes causing substantial outbreaks, but whether the virus is capable of self-sustained, human-to-human transmission is unknown”.

He said if self-sustained transmission in people is not yet underway, intensive control and risk-reduction measures targeting affected animal species and their handlers might eliminate the virus from the human population.

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