According to Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry pet camel was found to be infected by MERS — Middle Easter Respiratory Syndrome — a relatively young virus, first reported in 2012. While MERS has not been declared as a pandemic, the WHO has confirmed 149 infections and 63 deaths, as of October 2013. The owner of the camel was also recently hospitalized for MERS, which prompted the investigation of its origin.
Some may recognize it’s far deathly and more transmittable cousin, SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which infected and killed people in 37 countries in 2003. Like SARS, MERS is caused by coronavirus, a viral species more well known for its ubiquitous form: the common cold. Unfortunately, MERS induces symptoms far worse that the common cold; it could lead to severe cases of pneumonia and renal failure.
Tests to confirm the build up of antibodies, or immune response, against the virus in the camel were used to validate the transmission between the patient and his pet. It has been known that MERS can be transmitted from bats or camels to humans. Fortunately, human-human transmission seems to be rarer than that of SARS, but due to the rapidly evolving nature of viruses, scientists cannot completely rule out a potential pandemic. Some viruses can become more virulent in later generations. In fact, as of May 2013, the WHO has stated that MERS is a “threat to the entire world.”
Currently, there are discussions on what the viral reservoir is: does it originate in bats or camels? Viral genetic tests have shown that the MERS species found in humans were more related to that in bats than camels. In fact, the gene sequence had a 94% similarity rate. However, one may question the frequency of encountering bats for transmission to occur. Cave-derived water and fertilizer composed from bat excrements is highly used in Saudi Arabia, which may explain the link. Convincing evidence and co-occurence of camel and human patients MERS infections has been bringing the discussion back to question.