A newly discovered virus has made headlines recently in the news. Called the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), it is a cousin of the better known coronavirus, SARS. Two recent studies have proven that camels are infected by this MERS virus and that humans who contracted the disease also had the exact same version of the virus in their bloodstream.
To paraphrase a recent article in the BBC by Matt McGrath: However, the lead author of that report, Dr. Thomas Briese from Columbia University in New York, believes that there are many unanswered questions about the disease. He points to the fact that if camels were the sole route of infection, then the illness should be more prevalent among those who work with or are in close contact with the animals. Plus, there have been a small number of cases of people dying from MERS who have no known relationship with camels. “We do have these sporadic cases where there is no known exposure to known cases and we question where do they catch the virus. In some cases there was animal contact or camel contact but in others not, so there is no clear definitive picture yet.”
Dr Briese says that other species, including goats and sheep, have been tested but haven’t shown antibodies indicating exposure. In addition, the disease in camels is far more widespread than previously thought, with significant reservoirs in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Tunisia. Ironically, there have been no reports of people dying from the respiratory infection in these areas.
This unexplained fact, noted Dr. Briese, is making research question if a MERS viral reservoir could be found in domestic pets such as cats and dogs. “We are looking into or are trying to look into are cats, dogs – where there is more intimate contact – and any other wild species we can get serum from that we are not currently getting.”
The real question is if an animal viral reservoir is now even needed for the spread of the disease. There is one hypothesis that the virus subtly mutated and became transmissible from camels to humans. Once this occurred, the main contagious source of the disease became human to human contact—as evidenced by the recent case of a hospital worker in the United States. Again, another important question emerges. Will the virus hypothetically mutate again and make human to human transmission easier? Fortunately, researchers are looking into this problem right now, and hopefully MERS will prove nothing more than a fleeting news story.