WASHINGTON – A respiratory virus that has killed dozens of people, mainly in the Middle East, is widespread in camels and may be jumping directly from camels to humans, a recent study said.
Called Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, it has killed 79 of the 182 people infected since September 2012, according to the World Health Organization. Until now, little was known about its source or how it could be infecting people.
But senior study author Ian Lipkin of Columbia University said research now shows the virus is “extraordinarily common” in camels and has been for at least 20 years.
“In some parts of Saudi Arabia, two-thirds of young animals have infectious viruses in their respiratory tracts,” he said. “It is plausible that camels could be a major source of infection for humans.”
Lipkin worked with colleagues at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and lead author Abdulaziz Alagaili of King Saud University in Riyadh on the study.
Researchers took blood samples as well as rectal and nasal swabs from more than 200 camels in Saudi Arabia in November and December of 2013.
They analyzed the samples using mobile laboratory technology and found antibodies for MERS as well as active viruses, particularly in the nasal secretions of younger camels.
“Overall, 74 percent of camels sampled countrywide had antibodies to MERS-CoV (coronavirus),” the study said.
The team also analyzed archives of blood samples from dromedary camels — the most common species — taken from 1992 to 2010, and found evidence of MERS going back two decades.
“The virus that has been identified in these camels is identical to the virus that has been found in humans with disease,” Lipkin said.
Camels that tested positive for the virus appeared to be in otherwise good health.
Researchers now think close contact with camels, which are known to be slobbery creatures, could be how the virus is transmitted.
Most of the human infections of MERS have been in Saudi Arabia, with others scattered across Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.