Camels Are Likely Source of MERS: Most Animals Tested in Saudi Arabia Had Signs of Infection

By Mole, Beth | Science News, April 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

Camels Are Likely Source of MERS: Most Animals Tested in Saudi Arabia Had Signs of Infection


Mole, Beth, Science News


Three-quarters of dromedary camels in Saudi Arabia have been infected with the virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, according to the most thorough survey of the animals there. The finding adds to mounting evidence that camels are a source of the deadly infections in humans.

In September 2012, health experts isolated the first human case of MERS coronavirus, which was discovered in Saudi Arabia and is related to the SARS virus. Since then, the World Health Organization has reported 189 cases and 82 deaths while researchers have scrambled to identify a source of the infections. So far, scientists have found signs that camels and bats harbor the virus (SN Online: 8/8/13; SN: 9/21/13, p. 18), which causes severe pneumonia in humans.

Of more than 200 Saudi Arabian camels surveyed in 2013, researchers found that 74 percent showed signs of previous infections and around 25 percent had signs of active infections. In more than 250 archived samples of camel blood dating back to 1992, researchers found high rates of MERS exposure, from 93 to 100 percent, in every year represented.

Several research teams have found evidence of MERS in Middle Eastern camels over the last year. But the new study, published February 25 in mBio, confirms that the virus is common in camels in Saudi Arabia, which appears to be the epicenter of the disease. The study is also the first to find signs of the virus dating back to the 1990s.

The study doesn't prove that camels passed the virus to humans, says epidemiologist W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University. But, he adds, it shows that there doesn't need to be another animal source. Domesticated camels and camel meat are common in Saudi Arabia. …

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