Camels may be source of Middle East's Sars-like virus

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus could have come from camels, prompting further investigation into camel meat

The Sars-like virus that has infected 94 people who have lived in or had links to the Middle East, and killed almost half of them – including a 38-year-old man who died in the UK reportedly after exposure to a relative who visited Mecca, Saudi Arabia – could have come from camels, research suggests.

Until now, there have been few clues as to how people had come to be infected with the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, MERS-CoV, although the virus has similarities to a strain in pipistrelle bats. But bats, shy and nocturnal creatures, have been thought to be an unlikely source of human infection.

Now scientific detective work is suggesting a more plausible animal reservoir. A team of researchers led by Chantal Reusken, of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven, the Netherlands, tested blood samples from a range of domestic animals, including cattle, sheep and goats. They and drew a blank until they came to dromedary camels.

Tests on a group of 50 retired racing camels in Oman proved 100% positive. Every camel had antibodies in its blood that suggested it had at some point been in contact with MERS-CoV. The animals came from various places in Oman, suggesting the virus or one like it was widespread in camels across the country, said the researchers in their paper in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The team also tested 105 camels in the Canary Islands, where they serve the tourism industry, and found 15 of those were infected, or 14%.

The scientists said the virus could be slightly different – maybe more transmissible in Oman – or the camels might have been kept in circumstances that made it less likely to spread in the Canaries. But it is also possible that the virus was brought in by one of the three oldest Canary Island camels, who arrived from Morocco more than 18 years ago.

"We cannot rule out that the population might have once had an outbreak but that by the time of sampling, antibody titres had waned and no new introductions of the virus had occurred," they write. "The camels have contact with wild rodents, pigeons, and other doves, and possibly also bats. Seven insectivorous bat species, including three pipistrellus [species], are native to the Canary Islands, while Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) have been introduced."

There have been no human cases of MERS-CoV infection in Oman, even though it is close to countries in the Arabian peninsula where people have fallen sick and died. But it is possible that infection of the camel population happened years ago, they say.

The infection could have been imported in camels from Africa, where there are bats carrying a virus related to MERS-CoV.

"In the Middle East, huge numbers of camels are imported from Africa to meet the demand for meat," they write. "The top five camel breeding countries are all African, and Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are in the top five camel-meat producing countries."

They called for further studies and especially for investigation into any contacts with camels, camel products or camel meat by those who have fallen ill.

In a linked commentary, Vincent Munster, of NIAID Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, US, pointed out that there had not been reports of camels falling ill as a result of the virus.

"This fact begs the question of whether the detection of MERS-CoV neutralising antibodies in camels from both Spain and Oman is a result of unrelated cross-species transmission events or whether the virus has been circulating in camels for a long time. Regardless, a change in the ecology of MERS-CoV must have occurred to enable emergence in people."

A genetic change in the virus or some change in the environment or in agricultural practices might have enabled the virus to move into man, he said.

He agreed that there was an "urgent need for an integrated, one health approach by public and veterinary health stakeholders in all involved countries, combined with the rapid dissemination of data."


Sarah Boseley, health editor

The GuardianTramp

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