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Too early to draw conclusions on source of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome infections in humans

Further investigation into possible role of animals needed

Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NIAID-NIH
Transmission electron micrograph of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus particles, colorized in yellow.
9 August 2013, Rome - Understanding the potential role of animals in the emergence and spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) requires further investigation, analysis and study, FAO said today. Current evidence is not sufficient to identify the specific source, whether animal or otherwise, of the coronavirus that is causing MERS in humans.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that affect primarily birds and mammals. Some strains cause mild disease, while a limited number are more harmful (e.g. the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS] coronavirus). The MERS coronavirus has been shown to cause acute respiratory illness in humans. It has not yet been shown to cause disease in animals.

"It is not yet clear how people are becoming infected, or where the virus might come from," stated Juan Lubroth, FAO Chief Veterinary Officer. "We do not have enough information to identify with certainty the virus's origin. Confirming the source and mechanisms of transmission and spread are key to developing ways to reduce the risks posed by this virus to humans or other countries."

New information, more needed

A study led by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment of the Netherlands and just published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases Journal provides some additional information.

The study found antibodies for the MERS coronavirus or a similar virus in camel blood samples. The samples were taken in areas where human cases have not been reported. In some cases, the tested camels have been isolated from other camels for many years.

These antibody findings indicate that the MERS virus, or a similar coronavirus, occurs in some camels and potentially other species. However, the only way to know with any certainty if the virus affecting humans is the same as the virus possibly affecting camels (or any other animal) is to isolate the virus in different species and compare them genetically.

To date the MERS coronavirus has only been isolated in humans. Investigation and research in animal species must continue to shed light on potential animal sources. If and once identified, veterinary and public health authorities could better communicate how to prevent infection or institute specific control measures.

Close cooperation

Authorities in the affected region are investigating the situation. FAO is in close communication with national authorities as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). FAO and its partners stand ready to support national and regional efforts to identify the environment and context or which animal species might serve as a reservoir and to address the virus in animals in order to protect human health, animal health and animal-related livelihoods.

FAO is urging countries to invest in efforts to better understand virus sources and mechanisms of transmission and spread. This information can be employed to help people and animals avoid exposure in order to reduce the risks viruses pose to health and trade.

More: Answers to FAQs on MERs.