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National Institute of Allergy and
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Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014

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Camels Have Carried MERS Virus Since At Least 1992, Study Suggests

NIH-Funded Scientists Say Virus May Be Jumping Directly to People

National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists and their colleagues suggest that a coronavirus first identified in people in 2012 has circulated among dromedary camels in Saudi Arabia since at least 1992. Whether Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) infected people before 2012 without being diagnosed is a question for further study, the researchers say. The study authors include scientists from King Saud University, Columbia University, EcoHealth Alliance, and the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

In their study, published in the journal mBio, the researchers report finding MERS-CoV in approximately 75 percent of the samples taken from 203 dromedary camels in Saudi Arabia. Their samples show that the same MERS virus found in people is present in respiratory secretions of the camels. Also, using camel blood specimens collected and stored between 1992 and 2010, the scientists found evidence of previous MERS-CoV infection as early as 1992. They found no evidence that MERS-CoV is circulating among other common livestock in that area, such as sheep and goats.

The authors suggest that MERS-CoV may be jumping directly from dromedary camels to people, rather than being spread by bats, as some have speculated. The researchers plan to examine the role of direct or indirect human exposure to camels in future studies of MERS-CoV infection. Since 2012, the World Health Organization has documented 182 human cases of MERS-CoV infection and 79 deaths. All cases have been associated with Middle Eastern residents or travelers.

A Alagaili et al. Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) infection in dromedary camels in Saudi Arabia. mBio DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00884-14 (2014).

NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. is available for interviews. Vincent Munster, Ph.D., chief of the Virus Ecology Unit in NIAID’s Laboratory of Virology, also is available for interviews.

To schedule interviews, please contact Ken Pekoc, (301) 402-1663,

NIAID conducts and supports research—at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide—to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID website.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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Last Updated February 25, 2014

Last Reviewed February 24, 2014