Deadly MERS Virus May Be Airborne, Study Says

Saudi virus
A man wearing a surgical mask as a precautionary measure against the MERS coronavirus walks near a hospital in Khobar City, Saudi Arabia, in Dammam on May 21, 2013. Reuters

The MERS virus, which first emerged in Saudi Arabia and has since spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula, the U.S., Europe and Southeast Asia, may be airborne, according to a paper published Tuesday.

Researchers found an air sample containing fragments of MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, at a barn that had sheltered an infected camel and a MERS patient. An air sample collected on the day that one of the camels was confirmed to have the illness came back positive for the virus.

“It's another clue of a role for camels and it's another indication that this is an airborne virus,” said Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Neither is a revelation or a shock, but its always important to prove and not just make assumptions,” she added

For months, experts have suggested camels and bats as potential animal transmitters of the virus.

More than 830 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection have been recorded since MERS appeared in 2012, of which at least 288 resulted in death, according to the World Health Organization. The virus has spread to the United Kingdom, France, Tunisia, Italy, Malaysia, the Philippines, Greece, Egypt, the Netherlands and Iran, among other countries.

A traveler from Indiana became the first American MERS case in May; a second case involving a Florida traveler emerged shortly after. Both had visited Saudi Arabia.

Many of the infected individuals have been, or had contact with, health care providers.

Saudi Arabian officials have come under fire for their handling of the virus. The Saudi Health Minister and the Deputy Health Minister were sacked earlier this year after a rise in new infections.

Patients infected with MERS, a severe acute respiratory illness, develop fever, cough and shortness of breath. Individuals with MERS do not receive specific antiviral treatment but can treat their symptoms. No vaccines are available to protect against MERS.

The study is part of an ongoing international investigation into MERS.

“The detection of MERS-CoV RNA in the air sample from this barn concurrently with its detection and isolation from the infected camel and the onset of symptoms in the patient warrants further investigations for the possible airborne transmission of MERS-CoV,” said the study.

King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia supported the study.

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