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Saudi Arabia To Test Camels And Livestock For MERS

A worker wears a mask as he touches a camel at his employer's farm on May 12, outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Fayez Nureldine
AFP/Getty Images
A worker wears a mask as he touches a camel at his employer's farm on May 12, outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

OK, so now we know for sure that camels can, in fact, transmit the virus that causes the Middle East respiratory syndrome to humans.

DNA tests found that the virus that infected a 44-year-old Saudi Arabian man sickened with MERS matched a virus found in a camel on his farm. The path of infections was made even clearer by the fact that antibodies to the virus appeared in the camel's blood before they were seen in the man's blood. He died within weeks.

And we also found out this week that the number of MERS cases in Saudi Arabia has been understated by quite a bit. The Saudi Ministry of Health raised the number of known MERS cases by 20 percent to 688 from 575 the other day. Deaths from MERS climbed 48 percent to 282 from 190.

The jump in the MERS numbers struck some as an expected development. "It is not surprising that a tougher look at the MERS situation there led to the recognition of additional cases and deaths," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The Wall Street Journal. "We are not taking this as a sign the virus has become more dangerous."

Now there's a report that the Saudis will be testing camels and livestock throughout the country for the coronavirus that causes MERS. English-language Arab News says Agriculture Minister Fahd Balghuneim talked about the testing program at recent workshop in Riyadh.

The Saudi Wildlife Authority will also take samples from wild camels roaming freely in the desert to establish the level of MERS infection in the wider animal population, according to Arab News.

Public health officials around the world have criticized the Saudis for failing to take advantage of offers of help and being slow in investigating the illness. Dr. Ziad Memish, Saudi Arabia's deputy minister for public health and a central figure in its response to the outbreak, was relieved of his duties Monday.

While the MERS virus may have first been a problem for camels, the evidence that humans can pass the virus to each other is becoming a bigger concern. "Yes, we've demonstrated that camels can infect people," Columbia University virologist Ian Lipkin told Shots. "But the major challenge facing us now is to stop human-to-human transmission of MERS."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.