New Study Implicates Camels in MERS Outbreak

Posted on April 29, 2014

A new study implicates camels as the source of the MERS outbreak in the Middle East. Scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, King Saud University, and EcoHealth Alliance extracted a complete, live, infectious sample of MERS coronavirus from two camels in Saudi Arabia. The researchers say the sample matched the MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) found in humans. The research was published in the journal mBio.

Cases of MERS have spiked over the past few weeks. The latest WHO report, 4-26, on the outbreak is 261 lab-confirmed cases with 93 deaths globally since September 2012. Reuters is reporting higher numbers, 339 confirmed cases and 102 deaths. Egypt has joined the list of countries with cases.

Thomas Briese, PhD, associate director of the Center for Infection and Immunity and associate professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School, says in a statement, "The finding of infectious virus strengthens the argument that dromedary camels are reservoirs for MERS-CoV. The narrow range of MERS viruses in humans and a very broad range in camels may explain in part the why human disease is uncommon: because only a few genotypes are capable of cross species transmission."

Abdulaziz N. Alagaili, PhD, director of the Mammals Research Chair at King Saud University and study co-author says, "Given these new data, we are now investigating potential routes for human infection through exposure to camel milk or meat products. This report builds on work published earlier this year when our team found that three-quarters of camels in Saudi Arabia carry MERS virus."

The mBio research paper can be found here.