Mers virus

Deadly Mers virus outbreak in South Korea came from Saudi Arabian camels, says Hong Kong University research team

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 3:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 11:33am

The infection source of the coronavirus behind the recent deadly outbreak in South Korea has been traced back to one-humped camels in Saudi Arabia after a research team led by the University of Hong Kong  found the animals to be infected by three strains of the virus at the same time.

The virus that caused the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome which killed 36 people in South Korea was the fifth mutation of the virus – a recombination of the third and fourth generation – said the team.

Young camels below one year old are twice more likely to be infected by the virus, according to the team led by University of Hong Kong microbiologist Guan Yi and Dr Huachen Zhu.

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“Winter is the peak season for coronavirus infections in camels,”  said the team in releasing the study. “There should be policies to avoid direct contact with camels, especially their oral and nasal tracts.”

The study was published yesterday in the journal Science.

In collaboration with scientists from the mainland, Australia and Egypt and King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, the research team conducted a surveillance project in Saudi Arabia from 2014 to 2015.

The research has found the overall positive rate from nasal swabs of the camels for Mers was 12 per cent. Co-infections of different coronavirus species were frequently detected, with more than half of the infected camels carrying at least one other virus.

The viruses are usually found in camels’ respiratory tracts, meaning airborne transmission is the most likely way for them to spread.

Most camels found with the infection came from the wholesale markets, with one-humped camels, or dromedaries, in Saudi Arabia, having significantly higher positive rates for coronaviruses.

The researchers hope the transmission chain of the virus can be broken and the threat to public health reduced by effective surveillance and control measures.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1,300 human Mers cases have been reported in 26 countries since the novel virus emerged in 2012, leading to more than 500 deaths.

So far, Saudi Arabia is the country most affected, with over 75 per cent of cases, followed by South Korea.