Camels May Have Transmitted a Deadly Virus to Humans

Goats, livestock, sheep and camels were all tested for MERS antibodies, but only the camels came back positive

Charles Roffey

Since a new coronavirus emerged last year in the Middle East, researchers have been working to try and discover the animal culprit behind the bug. Although only 94 people have been infected, more than half of those cases resulted in death. Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, has also turned up in scattered cases throughout Europe, likely brought in from travelers coming from places such as Saudi Arabia.

The New York Times recently reported that virus hunters strongly suspects bats as the most likely natural reservoirs of the pathogen, but a new study suggests another possibility. Camels, researchers found, may be the missing link between humans and the virus.

The researchers arrived at this finding after testing for MERS antibodies in samples taken from various types of livestock and camels in Oman, Spain, the Netherlands and Chile. The cattle, sheep and goats all came back clean, but not the camels. The New Scientist reports:

All of the 50 Omani camels, and 15 per cent of the 105 Spanish camels tested had antibodies to the virus, but none of the species in the other countries did. This implies that the camels must have been exposed to the virus at some point for their bodies to have mounted an immune response.

Though one researcher told the New Scientist that finding antibodies is like finding “tracks in the sand” and is by no means definitive proof that camels are natural reservoirs for the disease, this does at least help researchers narrow down their hunt.

The next step is to look for the virus itself by studying stool samples and nose or throat swabs from the camels. This won’t be easy, says Koopmans, because coronaviruses are short-lived and don’t circulate in the host for long.

However, if camels are indeed transmitting the virus, the New Scientist reports, it may be through people eating their meat, drinking their milk or interacting with the animals at markets, when using them for transport or at popular camel racing events.

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