More pieces fall into place in the Mers puzzle

A man wearing a mask poses with camels at a camel market in the village of al-Thamama near Riyadh. Scientists believe the Mers coronavirus originates in camels (Photo: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser)
A man wearing a mask poses with camels at a camel market in the village of al-Thamama near Riyadh. Scientists believe the Mers coronavirus originates in camels (Photo: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser)

A small potential breakthrough and a small step along a long road is probably the best way to explain the latest developments in the search for answers to key questions regarding the Mers coronavirus.

The small step, as reported in The National yesterday, is the decision by Saudi Arabia’s ministry of health to ban the sacrifice of camels in Mecca during this year’s Haj. Camels will still be sacrificed elsewhere in the kingdom, but will not be performed by the pilgrims themselves.

That is the small step and it has come about because of the discovery of an apparent genetic link between the Mers virus found in humans and a similar disease found in camels. Since such a link has not been found in other animals, scientists believe camels are the most likely source of transmission from animals to humans.

A little way along a long path then. Because the Mers coronavirus is still shrouded in mystery. If the assumption of scientists is correct, that still leaves many questions unanswered. Take, for example, the method of transmission from animals to humans. One working assumption, not yet proven, has been that the virus is wind-borne, either from the camels themselves or via their droppings. Most of those who have caught the virus have not been in contact with camels, but been infected from other humans. Sometimes, the first person in the infection chain has had no contact with camels, either.

This is where the small breakthrough has occurred. Air samples taken from a camel barn in Jeddah owned by a Mers victim have proven positive for fragments of the virus.

As we report in today’s newspaper, this has led to concern that the virus could be airborne – although there is still much to understand. Airborne viruses can be easily transmitted from person to person and spread quickly. Mers does not. Indeed, in contrast to its close cousin Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Mers takes a long time to be passed on.

Many questions, then, and all of them with practical implications. But to defeat any disease, a full understanding of its causes and routes of transmission are essential. Month by month, step by step, medical science is unravelling the Mers conundrum. Until it is fully understood, the best advice is for everyone to practise basic hygiene of covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, disposing of tissues carefully – and frequent hand sanitising.

Published: July 23, 2014 04:00 AM

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