UAE scientists investigate Mers link between camels and rodents

A sample of 200 dead rodents, found near camel farms, has been sent for testing in Germany to find out what initially infected camels

DUBAI // Scientists have collected 200 samples from rodents to help research into the Mers coronavirus.

The samples, which were sent to Germany yesterday, will help answer questions about how camels were infected with the disease – which is not dangerous to them – but can be lethal to humans.

“We do not know from where camels got it,” said Dr Ulrich Wernery, scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) in Dubai.

The disease had been present in camels for a long time before the first human cases were detected in 2012.

Last year, CVRL tested 80 frozen camel samples it had kept in storage, which dated from up to 20 years ago.

The samples contained virus antibodies, which means the virus had been present in camels for years. Another 200 more recent samples were also tested.

“Between 80 and 100 per cent of the samples were positive,” said Dr Wernery. “Other countries did the same [kind of testing] – Egypt, Saudi Arabia – and they confirmed our findings. The virus has been here a long time.”

Samples from camels in Australia and the US, however, tested negative, indicating the virus was probably restricted to camels in the Middle East and Pakistan.

The virus is capable of being transmitted to humans, with “very close interaction” with camels being responsible for about 8 per cent of known infections.

“There are known cases from Saudi Arabia [where the virus in humans was first detected] where people got sick from contact with camels,” he said.

What makes people working with camels particularly at risk is the fact that the animals carrying the virus display only subtle symptoms. They behave and eat normally, with a discharge from the nose and eyes the only indication. In humans, symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

The risk for humans is particularly high when interacting with camels that are between one and two years old, as more mature animals tend to build up a resistance to the virus.

It is still a mystery, however, as to what initially infected the camels with the virus. This is why, said Dr Wernery, it was important to carry out studies of other animals – rodents, birds and wildlife such as gazelles.

The 200 samples sent to the Institute of Virology in Bonn, Germany, were obtained from rats and mice living near camel farms in various parts of the country, said Dr Wernery.

For the last year, the clinic has also been collecting samples from dead wild animals brought in for autopsies.

Last week, Dr Wernery attended a scientific conference in Saudi Arabia, dedicated to infectious diseases and the methods to limit them spreading at mass gatherings, such as the annual Haj. The scientists, said Dr Wernery, “had a very profound discussion about Mers and also gave some recommendations” to the Saudi health ministry.

These included that no camel should be used in sacrificial offerings, and people should only consume pasteurised camel milk and well-cooked meat.

Dr Wernery said that CVRL had the capability to test for the virus in samples taken from humans and camels. He advised that, as a way to limit the spread of the disease, more camels should be tested. While it was not possible to do so for all of the UAE’s 250,000 camels, it was a good precaution to test animals displayed at tourist areas, he said.

vtodorova@thenational.ae

Published: May 6, 2014 04:00 AM

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