Nearly identical MERS-CoV strains found in camels, humans
Researchers today reported that dromedary camels on a farm in Qatar were infected with a strain of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) nearly identical to that found in two people associated with the farm. The findings point to an outbreak that involved both camels and humans, but they don’t answer the key question of whether camels infected humans or the other way around.
Qatari health officials announced Nov 27 that the virus had been found in camels on the farm. Today’s report in the Lancet Infectious Diseases spells out the science behind the announcement and says the findings mark the first definitive confirmation of the virus in camels.
The research team, involving Dutch, Qatari, and British scientists, said the nucleotide sequences of two genomic fragments from the camel and human viruses were very similar, but not identical. The similarity is close enough so that researchers couldn’t tell whether the camels or the humans were infected first.
“We cannot conclude whether the people on the farm were infected by the camels or vice versa, or if a third source was responsible,” the report says.
The results are the latest chapter in the quest to identify the source of the virus and how it is getting into humans. In previous studies, scientists reported MERS-CoV-like antibodies in camels in Oman, Egypt, the Canary Islands, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, but not the virus itself.
More than a month ago, on Nov 11, Saudi Arabian officials said the virus had been detected in a camel linked to a human case in Jeddah, but they have not yet published a scientific report on the discovery.