MERS Virus May Be Able To Spread Through The Air

It was thought that the pathogen could only be spread via close contact.

Dromedary camels, which can carry MERS.Wilson44691 via Wikimedia Commons

Research strongly suggests that camels carry Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a viral illness that has sickened nearly 700 and killed at least 209 people as of early June, according to the latest update from the World Health Organization. For this reason, the government of Saudi Arabia recently warned people to stay away from close contact with camels, at least those that appear to be sick, which prompted some to defiantly post photos of themselves kissing camels on various social media sites.

Until now it was thought that MERS could only be spread via close contact, but a new finding may challenge that assessment: A study published in the journal mBio found the virus in an air sample taken from a camel barn near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The genetic signature of the virus was identical to that found in the sick camels, and the owner, who came down with MERS a week after administering a topical medicine to his camels' runny noses. The owner later died from MERS.

"The clear message here is that detection of airborne [MERS] molecules, which were 100 percent 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," said study lead author Esam Azhar, a virologist at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. The finding implies that virus could possibly be spread in enclosed spaces such as hospitals and therefore "further studies are urgently needed," the scientists wrote.

The scientists took air samples and looked for the DNA found in MERS viruses on three consecutive days. They only found the virus one of the days, the same day that one of the camels tested positive for MERS. This suggests that MERS may not last long in the air, which would be welcome news.

In May, the CDC reported the first case of a man getting the MERS virus in the United States without traveling to the Middle East--though luckily the man didn't appear to have symptoms and wasn't considered contagious.