Camels in Saudi Arabia will be tested for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus in order to better understand its link to animals, Agriculture Minister Fahad Balghunaim announced Thursday. The virus first appeared in the Arabian Peninsula and health experts suspect it was initially spread to humans from camels.
A program monitoring livestock and camels had begun last year, but it will be accelerated in order to test the animals for MERS more efficiently. The Saudi Wildlife Authority will also be taking samples from wild camels living in the desert, in order to better grasp the spread of infection in a broader population of animals. Imported camels will also be tested.
The notion that the virus may have originated in camels has been circulating since last year. Despite this, the Saudi Agriculture Ministry has not taken action until now, according to Reuters. When questioning traders, breeders, and handlers of camels at Riyadh’s main camel market, many said they were unaware about the MERS connection to animals, and said they had not been notified by health officials, Reuters reports.
Recently, a Saudi study emphasized the link between camels and the spreading of the virus to humans. The study identified a 44-year-old man from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, who kept a herd of nine camels, and was in contact with a sickened animal. The researchers discovered via serology tests that the MERS virus had been spreading between camels originally before infecting the man — and the MERS viruses in both the animal and the man were identical. Experts around the world see this as a “wake-up call to camel owners and handlers around the Middle East,” according to Matthew Frieman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
After two confirmed MERS cases in the U.S., there have been no other suspected infections. The two cases occurred after people travelled from Saudi Arabia back to the states, but both patients were placed in isolation in the hospital and have since recovered. Most of the cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries — with 691 cases and 284 deaths just in Saudi Arabia.
The study “supports what we thought was going on – i.e. (that) MERS-CoV transmits from camels to humans…rather than the other way around,” Jake Dunning of the Center for Respiratory Infection, Imperial College London, told Reuters.