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New Study Identifies Camels as Possible Source Behind MERS Outbreak

Aug 10, 2013 05:52 PM EDT

Camels could be the source behind the deadly Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak responsible for infecting nearly 100, almost 50 percent of which have died as a result.

MERS is a member of the family of viruses called coronaviruses, which are often found in bats. For this reason scientists suspected that the winged mammal was somehow behind the outbreak, either by infecting humans directly or indirectly through another animal. But writing in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, a team of researchers from a dozen different universities present evidence that dromedary camels, or camels with only one hump, may represent the missing link.

In order to come to this conclusion the researchers tested blood samples from 50 camels in Oman and 105 in the Canary Islands. Unable to identify the virus itself, they nevertheless discovered protein-specific antibodies to the virus in all of the camels from Oman and 14 percent of those from the Canary Islands.

No other animals tested, including sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas and other kinds of camels showed any signs of the antibodies.

While the report has yet to be verified by further studies, Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a virus expert from Columbia University who has been studying the outbreak, told The New York Times that the news presents "compelling evidence that dromedaries are infected with MERS or a related coronavirus."

True, he says, the study does not prove that the camels are infecting humans. Still, given the heightened degree of interaction between the animals and humans in the Middle East, it would certainly make sense.

"This looks like the big threat that public health workers needed in the fight against the spread of MERS," University of Reading microbiologist Benjamin Neuman told the AFP regarding the report. "This is the first hard evidence that camels may be the missing link in the chain of transmission."

Correction/clarification: Previously, the article said no antibodies were found in any other animals, including camels. The article should and now reads that no MERS antibodies were identified in other kinds of camels besides dromedary camels.

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