News / Health

Camels May Be Source Of Deadly Coronavirus

A camel milk farm. Scientists have found a clue that suggests camels may be involved in infecting people in the Middle East with the MERS virus, July 3, 2013
A camel milk farm. Scientists have found a clue that suggests camels may be involved in infecting people in the Middle East with the MERS virus, July 3, 2013
Lisa Schlein
The World Health Organization said a recent study indicating that dromedary camels may be the source of the coronavirus is far from conclusive.   WHO said investigations must continue into the exact origins of this disease, which so far has killed 46 of the 94 confirmed cases.

The World Health Organization said it welcomed any study that can shed more light on the coronavirus.  But it adds the study, which suggests a possible linkage between the infection in camels and spread of the disease to humans, leaves many questions unanswered.   

This SARS-like disease first emerged in the Middle East last year.  It is known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS-Coronavirus, because of its prevalence in that region.  

An international team of researchers took blood samples from 50 camels across Oman and another 105 in the Canary Islands.  The team also tested a number of other animals from the Netherlands, Chile and Spain.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic says the scientists have detected the presence of a virus similar to the MERS-coronavirus in camels from Oman.  They also found antibodies in all of the Omani camels, as well as lower levels of antibodies in 15 of the camels from the Canary Islands.  

“That means that the camels have been infected at some point in time and that produced antibodies.  Now, to be sure that this is the same MERS-coronavirus as it is in humans, we need to find the virus itself, not antibodies.  So, this would be the next step-to find the virus and identify it as the same one,” stated Jasarevic.  

The disease remains shrouded in mystery.  The source of the coronavirus is not known.   No one knows how people become infected with this virus or how it is transmitted.  The illness is similar to SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.  It causes fever and pneumonia.  There is neither treatment for the coronavirus nor a vaccine to protect against the disease.

Most of the deaths have occurred in Saudi Arabia.  Others have died in Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  Several people have fallen ill and died in France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Tunisia.  All had either visited the Middle East or been infected by someone who had been in the region.

Saudi Arabia restricted visas for the 2013 hajj, which attracts millions of pilgrims, in fear of the spread of the virus.

WHO spokesman Jasarevic said more investigations are needed because the study does not provide any insight into how humans become infected with coronavirus.

“Most reported human cases basically acquired infection through the contact with another person, and those who have not been infected by other humans, most of them have not had contacts with camels," said Jasarevic. "It is also possible that there are more than one animal species that is infected with the coronavirus.  So, basically it gives us some clue and direction to go, but… we still do not know what the source of the virus (is) and, most importantly, we still do not know what kind of exposure makes humans being infected.”  

The World Health Organization has no specific recommendations on how to prevent infection.  But it does advise people to avoid contact with sick animals and birds and to take basic hygiene measures, especially frequent hand washing and changing of clothes and boots, after handling animals or animal products.

WHO said people should not eat raw or undercooked animal products, including milk.  They should avoid unwashed fruits or vegetables, and drinks made without safe water.

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