The deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has been detected in three camels linked to two new human cases of the disease in Qatar, fuelling speculation that camels might be the animal link that passes the virus to people.
British researchers who conducted some of the earliest genetic analyses on MERS said the virus was also related to a strain found in bats.
The three camels come from a single herd, according to the Supreme Council of Health and the Ministry of Environment. The associated pair of human cases have already been cured. Qatar’s Supreme Council of Health said in a statement, “The three camels were investigated among a herd of 14 camels, and the samples were collected as part of the epidemiological investigation.”
World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl said there was still insufficient evidence to say for sure what the source of the human MERS infections was. “Neither camels nor bats can yet be said to be reservoir of MERS,” he posted on the Twitter.
Last summer, Dutch scientists found strong evidence that the MERS virus is widespread among one-humped dromedary camels in the Middle East, suggesting people may become infected from camels used for meat, milk (read about camel milk here), transport and racing.
Human cases of MERS, which can cause pneumonia and flu-like symptoms such as coughing and fever, have been reported in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Tunisia.
The Qatari health council warn people with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory illnesses to avoid any close animal contact when visiting farms and markets.
The coronavirus MERS emerged in the Middle East last year, killing nearly 40 percent of the approximately 176 people so far infected. It’s related to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and fears that the virus would explode amongst this year’s Hajj pilgrims have so far proved unfounded.
Image of camels from Shutterstock