A report published yesterday provided the first solid evidence that the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus (MERS-cov) can be contracted by man through close contact with an infected camel.
MERS-cov, which can cause fever, coughing, shortness of breath and pneumonia, belongs to the same family of viruses (betacoronavirus) as those causing the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). It was first identified in 2012 in a patient from Saudi Arabia. Since then, 282 people in Saudi Arabia have died from MERS. There have also been cases reported in Europe and the US, but these have all been in people travelling from Middle Eastern countries or people who have been in close contact them. The majority of victims have been male, which it is purported is a consequence of the women being protected from inhaling contaminated fluids by their veils. There is currently no known cure for MERS.
Until now, although many had suspicions, there was no proof that MERS-cov could be passed from camel to man. Researchers conducted genetic analysis on viral samples taken from a Saudi Arabian man who developed MERS and from the ill camel to which the man had applied nose drops shortly before becoming ill. The results showed that the virus in the man and the virus infecting the camel had identical DNA sequences, indicating that the virus must have passed directly from the camel to the man.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Nashville, explained "Earlier work had different pieces of the puzzle that made this story likely. But in this small episode, all the pieces came together to offer definitive evidence".
Jake Dunning of the Centre for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London commented “It supports what we thought was going on — i.e. Mers-CoV transmits from camels to humans ... rather than the other way around,”.
Last year Fahd Balghuneim, the Minister of Agriculture for Saudi Arabia, initiated a programme to register and number all livestock in the Kingdom. Now that it is clear that MERS-cov can be transmitted from camels (even if they are asymptomatic) to humans, he recently announced that they have started testing all camels in the Kingdom for the deadly virus.