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. mBioDOI: 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.