Scientists just found another reason to be worried about the deadly MERS virus

New research indicates that the virus may be airborne

Published July 22, 2014 5:48PM (EDT)


A deadly virus spreading in the Middle East might be transmittable through the air, scientists warn.

The outbreak of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, known as MERS, in Saudi Arabia already has the world on alert: According to the most recent World Health Organization numbers, it's infected 834 people and caused at least 288 deaths since it first appeared in 2012. Very little is understood about how the virus, which is linked to camels, is transmitted, but a new paper, published Tuesday in the journal mBio, raises a new possibility. CNN explains:

Researchers from King Fahd Medical Research Center in Saudi Arabia collected three air samples from a camel barn. Previously, they had found MERS in a camel from that barn and in its infected owner, who later died from the condition. After analyzing the air sample, the scientists found one strain of MERS RNA, the viral genome.

Interestingly, the barn air tested positive for MERS on the exact same day that one of the nine camels in the barn tested positive for MERS. Also, the virus from the air sample was identical to the virus found in nasal samples from the infected camel and its owner.

"These data show evidence for the presence of the airborne MERS in the same barn that was owned by the patient and sheltered the infected camels," the study authors write.

Experts say it's too soon to confirm whether the virus is actually being transmitted in this way, but stress the need for further investigation. Right now, the Saudi Health Ministry is warning those who work closely with camels to take extra precautions to protect themselves from transmission, and for everyone to avoid consuming meat and raw milk from the animals. Health officials have expressed concern that MERS could undergo genetic changes that would make it more easily spread from human to human, making a global outbreak more likely. Airborne transmission, should it turn out to be occurring, would present an even greater challenge to efforts to control the outbreak -- allowing it spread more quickly and widely than before.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Mers Public Health Saudi Arabia Virus World Health Organization