To date, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has affected at least 94 people, 46 of whom died, but researchers have yet to pinpoint the source of this deadly virus.
New research published in the journal Lancet Infections Diseases suggests that dromedary camels may be responsible.
In order to investigate how people are picking up the coronavirus, which is not yet considered a global threat, researchers tested animals in several countries to determine if they had ever been infected with the disease.
Professor Marion Koopmans, from the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment and Erasmus University in The Netherlands, told the BBC:
“We did find antibodies that we think are specific for the Mers coronavirus or a virus that looks very similar to the Mers coronavirus in dromedary camels.”
Animals that test positive for these antibodies have been exposed to the disease at one time or another, Prof Koopmans adds.
It turns out that in the Canary Islands, 15 out of 105 dromedary camels tested positive for the antibodies, while all 50 of the camels in Oman have also been exposed to the disease at one time during their lifespan. But neither of the two countries have reported any cases of humans contracting the disease.
Prof Koopmans said: “It is a smoking gun, but it is not definitive proof.”
Professor Paul Kellam from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge and University College London told the paper that there is only one way to know for certain that the camels are spreading the disease to humans.
“The definitive proof would be to isolate the virus from an infected animal or to be able to sequence and characterise the genome from an infected animal,” he told BBC. The next step is to take samples from camels in Saudi Arabia, where the first man contracted the disease and died.
Although BBC News reports that there is no concern for alarm, last year Margaret Chan, WHO secretary-general, said otherwise.
Chan announced that Mers is a “threat to the entire world.”
“We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat,” said Chan.
“Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control. These are alarm bells and we must respond. The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single country can manage by itself.”
:: BBC News
Image of dromedary camels in Egypt, Trip Advisor