Evidence insufficient to identify source of respiratory syndrome in Middle East – UN

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth. Photo: FAO/Giulio Napolitano

9 August 2013 – Further research is needed to identify the specific source – whether animal or otherwise – of the coronavirus that is causing the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in humans, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today.

“It is not yet clear how people are becoming infected, or where the virus might come from,” Juan Lubroth, FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer, said in a news release.

“We do not have enough information to identify with certainty the virus’ origin. Confirming the source and mechanisms of transmission and spread are key to developing ways to reduce the risks posed by this virus to humans or other countries.”

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that affect primarily birds and mammals. Some strains cause mild disease, while a limited number are more harmful such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The MERS coronavirus has been shown to cause acute respiratory illness in humans, but has not yet been shown to cause disease in animals.

FAO underlined that the potential role of animals in the spread of MERS required further investigation. This comes after a study led by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment of the Netherlands found antibodies for the MERS coronavirus in camel blood samples.

The samples for the study were taken in areas where human cases have not been reported, and in some cases, the tested camels have been isolated from other camels for many years.

“These antibody findings indicate that the MERS virus, or a similar coronavirus, occurs in some camels and potentially other species,” FAO said. “However, the only way to know with any certainty if the virus affecting humans is the same as the virus possibly affecting camels (or any other animal) is to isolate the virus in different species and compare them genetically.”

FAO urged countries to invest in efforts to better understand virus sources and mechanisms of transmission and spread, and said it is ready to support national and regional efforts to identify the source.

The Rome-based agency added that it is in close communication with national authorities as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and is monitoring the situation closely.


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