Camels’ Role in MERS Contagion Questioned

A study suggests that transmission of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus from camels to humans is poor.

Jan 15, 2015
Jenny Rood

WIKIMEDIA, SANDRA COHEN-ROSE AND COLIN ROSEWhen infected with the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), camels come down with a week-long illness and spew high quantities of pathogen into the air. The commonly-infected mammals have thus been blamed as vectors of the deadly MERS outbreak that has affected nearly 950 people—killing at least 350—since it began in 2012. But according to a study to be published in a coming issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, MERS-infected camels may not be spreading the coronavirus to humans. Researchers from King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia and the University of Hong Kong tested 11 members of a domestic herd of 70 camels and found that nine were infected with the MERS virus. They then tested the blood of 191 people, 146 with no exposure to the camels and 45 with low to high exposure—including four herdsmen who had daily contact with the animals and who often drank raw camel milk. The researchers found that none of them had antibodies to MERS, which would be present if any of them had been previously infected.

“Our findings do not imply that dromedaries are not a source of infection for humans,” the authors wrote in their paper, but are consistent with observations that “human disease is not directly proportional to potential exposure to a virus that seems to be common in dromedary camels.”