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Scientists fear that deadly MERS virus could be transmissible through the air

MERS virus

(NaturalNews) A serious new respiratory virus with a high mortality rate may have the potential to be transmitted by air, according to a study conducted by researchers from King Fahd Medical Research Center in Saudi Arabia and published in the journal mBio last summer.

This would elevate the virus to a much greater public health concern, since airborne viruses such as the flu spread much more quickly and easily than viruses requiring some form of contact (such as colds) or viruses that cannot cross between human beings at all, but can only be acquired from animals (such as currently known forms of "bird flu").

More than one-third of patients die

The virus in question, known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS), was first identified in 2012. Since then, according to the World Health Organization, there have been 836 laboratory-confirmed cases of the disease, of these, at least 288 (34.5 percent) contributed to the patient's death.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) records 850 cases of MERS, and 327 deaths (38.4 percent mortality). Nearly all the cases have occurred in Saudi Arabia, but some cases have also been reported among people in the United States, Asia and Europe who had recently traveled to the Middle East.

Researchers are still unsure how the severe respiratory infection is transmitted, although studies have suggested that the disease is linked to camels in some way. Many experts believe that most cases of the disease have been transmitted to people directly from camels, via close contact with the living animals or their meat or milk. However, other studies have suggested that some cases may have been transmitted from person to person, via close contact.

Virus genome found in air

In the new study, researchers collected air samples on three consecutive days from a camel barn owned by a 43-year-old man who had been diagnosed with MERS. The patient in question later died.

In the week before the man became ill, four of his nine camels had shown signs of nasal discharge, and he had applied a medication directly to the nose of one of them.

The researchers found traces of MERS RNA (the virus's genome) in the air sample from the first day only. That was the same day that one of the nine camels also tested positive for MERS. Genetic analysis confirmed that the genetic material in the air came from the same strain of MERS that infected both the camel and the human patient.

"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 researchers wrote.

The fact that there was no MERS RNA in the air on the two following days suggests that the virus may only be shed into the air intermittently or for a very short time period, according to lead researcher Esam Azhar.

"This study also underscores the importance of obtaining a detailed clinical history with particular emphasis on any animal exposure for any MERS case, especially because recent reports suggest higher risk of (MERS) infections among people working with camels," Azhar said.

Although the study suggests that MERS may become airborne, that does not necessarily mean humans can become infected via the air.

"What they say is that virus particles can be airborne, but it's premature to conclude that MERS is transmitted through aerosols," said Dr. Mark Denison, a professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

"Do we still need to consider the possibility of airborne transmission? Yes, of course."

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