July 22, 2014
2 min read

MERS may be airborne

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A research team from Saudi Arabia detected Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, coronavirus in air samples taken from a barn that sheltered a camel infected with the virus, according to new data published in mBio.

To date, there have been 834 cases of MERS globally and 288 related deaths, according to WHO. The recent findings suggest that further studies are needed to determine whether airborne transmission of the disease is possible.

“The clear message here is that detection of airborne [MERS] molecules, which were 100% identical with the viral genomic sequence detected from a camel actively shedding the virus in the same barn on the same day, warrants further investigations and measures to prevent possible airborne transmission of this deadly virus,” study researcher Esam Azhar, PhD, head of the special infectious agents unit at King Fahd Medical Research Center and associate professor of medical virology at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said in a press release.

In a previous study, Azhar and colleagues isolated MERS from a camel and its infected owner, a 43-year-old man who lived south of the town of Jeddah. The researchers found evidence of direct transmission between the camel and the patient, who had applied a topical medicine to the nostrils of the ill animal. The patient later died from his condition. For their most recent study, the researchers used reverse transcription PCR to screen air samples collected on 3 consecutive days from the barn that sheltered the infected camel.

They found that the first air sample, collected on Nov. 7 — the same day that one of the camels in the barn tested positive for MERS — contained genetic fragments of the virus. None of the other samples tested positive for MERS, suggesting intermittent shedding of the virus into the air, according to the researchers.

The researchers noted that the shedding of MERS into the environment is supported by reports of nosocomial infection of immunocompromised patients and those who come in close contact with MERS cases, including family members and health care workers. Additionally, the detection of MERS-neutralizing antibodies and its genome in dromedary camels indicate the role of animals in the transmission of the disease.

“Our data suggest that camels may be a source of infectious [MERS], which can be transmitted to humans within confined spaces,” they wrote. “These results also suggest that air sampling might be a useful approach to investigate the role of the airborne transmission of [MERS] spread and shedding.”

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.