New coronavirus found in UAE camels

Last year camels were implicated as a possible source of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in humans. Now researchers say they have found a brand-new coronavirus in camels in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Scientists from Hong Kong and the UAE found the new virus in 4.8% of fecal samples from 293 dromedary camels in the UAE, according to their report in Emerging Infectious Diseases. The new virus, like MERS-CoV, is classified as a member of the betacoronavirus group.

Furthermore, the researchers found that nearly all the camels also carried antibodies to MERS-CoV, suggesting that they had been exposed to it previously. That finding is consistent with several other recent studies that found antibodies to MERS-CoV or a closely related virus in dromedary camels in the Middle East.

The take-home message, the researchers say, is that viruses in camels bear close watching to understand the potential for transmission to humans, given the high level of contact between humans and camels.

In December researchers reported that dromedary camels on a farm in Qatar were infected with a MERS-CoV strain nearly identical to that found in two people associated with the farm, but they couldn’t determine whether the camels infected the humans or vice versa. Pointing out that few MERS patients have reported contact with camels, experts have said that the link between MERS-CoV in camels and humans has not been fully established.

No correlation between new virus and MERS-CoV

The authors say their findings suggest that there is no correlation between antibodies to MERS-CoV and antibodies to DcCoV UAE-HKU23. Because nearly all the serum samples contained MERS-CoV antibodies, a similar high prevalence of antibodies to the new virus would be expected if there were major serologic cross-reactivity between the two strains, they observe. But DcCoV UAE-HKU23 antibodies were found in only 52% of samples, indicating no correlation.

In their conclusion, the authors note that diseases such as brucellolosis can occasionally spread from camels to humans and that viruses from at least eight different families, aside from coronaviruses, have been known to infect camels.

“Because camels are closely associated with humans, continuous surveillance of viruses in this hardy group of animals is needed to understand the potential for virus emergence and transmission to humans,” they write.

In commenting on the findings, Marion Koopmans, DVM, PhD, head of virology at the Laboratory for Infectious Diseases of the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, said, “This work provides full confirmation of prior studies suggesting presence of coronaviruses related to bovine coronavirus in these animals.”

Concerning the finding of MERS-CoV antibodies in the animals, she told CIDRAP News, “Finding a high proportion of camels [with] antibody positive to MERS CoV is now business as usual.”

She added that it’s important that the team showed that the MERS-CoV serology results cannot be explained by exposure to the novel virus.



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