Camels implicated as possible hosts of MERS virus

Antibodies to mysterious pathogen found in animals in Oman, Canary Islands

Camels may be intermediate hosts of a mysterious and deadly respiratory virus related to SARS that has sickened 94 people, killing 46, in parts of the Middle East, Europe and northern Africa.

Last year, the virus — now known as the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, coronavirus — revealed itself to scientists after a few people became sick with severe pneumonia (SN: 3/23/13, p. 5). After examining the virus’s DNA, researchers discovered that the pathogen is related to similar viruses that infect bats, but none of the sick people had any known contact with bats.

Now, Chantal Reusken of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven, the Netherlands, and colleagues report August 9 in the Lancet Infectious Diseases that 50 retired racing camels from Oman carry antibodies against the MERS coronavirus in their blood. The result suggests that the animals have been exposed to MERS or a closely related virus.

The team also found low levels of antibodies against the virus in the blood of dromedary camels from the Canary Islands. Neither Oman nor the Canary Islands has reported human cases of the disease. But anecdotal reports suggest that some of the sick people from other countries may have been around camels or goats before falling ill.

The results could mean that camels and camel relatives such as goats may be intermediaries in a chain of infection that sometimes ends with humans or that a virus similar to MERS has been in camels for a long time and recently gained the ability to infect people.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on August 9, 2013, to correct the journal the paper appears in.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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