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MERS can move from Camels to Humans, Study Finds

Update Date: May 07, 2014 03:18 PM EDT
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The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, shorted to MERS-CoV, is currently circulating in Saudi Arabia and nearby countries. The virus, which has been compared to the SARS virus, has recently popped up in one patient from the United States as well. Even though the virus is only transmissible between humans under close contact, health officials are working hard to maintain the spread of the disease.

In a new study, virologists from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria discovered that the strain that causes MERS in camels and in humans are almost genetically identical, which suggests that MERS can move from camels to humans.

In this study, the researchers examined samples taken from 76 camels' eyes and noses. The camels originated from Oman. The team found that five of the camels carried MERS-CoV. The virus that was present on these sites was almost the same as the virus that causes MERS in humans. The team concluded that humans could be getting infected from contacting these particular sites, especially through nasal discharge.

"While the SARS coronavirus probably crossed the species barrier only once by passing from bats to humans, we may presume that the MERS coronavirus is being constantly transmitted from camels to humans," study co-author Norbert Nowotny said reported by WebMD.

The researchers found that geographic location mattered greatly. The virus found in the camels from Oman was different from the viruses found in other countries, such as Egypt.

"This means that there is no specific 'camel MERS coronavirus strain,' but that one virus infects both camels and humans," Nowotny said. "With this knowledge we can specifically react to the spread of the virus. Vaccinations of camels are currently being discussed. We will thus be able to halt the spread of the virus."

There is currently no vaccine for MERS-CoV. The virus was first identified back in June 2012 and has killed over 100 people so far. In Saudi Arabia, where the virus is at large, the acting health minister announced recently that the head of the Jeddah hospital has been replaced after two more deaths due to MERS were confirmed. With better care, detection and treatment, the spread of the virus could be maintained.

The study was published in Eurosurveillance.

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