MERS virus may be capable of airborne transmission

Scientists find gene fragments of the virus in air samples taken from camel barn belonging to infected man

By Aprajita Singh
Published: Sunday 27 July 2014

MERS virus (image courtesy CDC, US)A group of scientists have recently found air-borne gene fragments from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), indicating that the virus may have the potential to be airborne. The study was conducted by a team of scientists from the King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, and was published on 22 July in the journal mBio.

The team collected air samples for three consecutive days from the camel barn of a MERS patient whose camels were also infected. The team found the presence of gene fragments of the virus in the samples taken on the first day, the same day when one of the camels tested positive for MERS. The genome sequences from the sample were identical to the samples taken from the man and the camels, indicating that the camels were the most probable source of the infection. The patient had been witnessed applying a topical cream to the noses of one of the camels, seven days prior to his diagnosis. The other samples did not carry traces of the virus. The patient died a few days after the samples were taken.

As reported to the WHO, there have been 699 laboratory confirmed cases since the disease was first identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, of which at least 209 patients have died. A majority of the cases have been in the Arabian Peninsula, although there have been incidents in Egypt, Tunisia and parts of Europe also. Earlier this year, Algeria, Iran, Lebanon and the Netherlands also reported their first confirmed cases or MERS. There have not been any confirmed cases of MERS in India yet.

The infection may cause fever, respiratory problems and renal failure. Infected camels, however, may show no symptoms at all.

The source of the disease has not yet been identified, although several studies suggest that the virus spreads to humans via camels and bats. Antibodies have been found in camels in the Middle East, indicating that the camels had been infected at one point of time.

In a previous paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the same team from the King Abdulaziz University proved that the patient had contracted the disease from his camels, as the genome sequence of the virus found in his body was identical to that found in the camels.

The WHO advises good hygiene practices amongst camel owners and slaughterhouse workers, which is the group that is at maximum risk of exposure. Healthcare personnel are also at great risk and comprise nearly one-fifth of all reported infections.

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