WASHINGTON, July 22 (Xinhua) -- Saudi Arabian researchers said Tuesday that they have detected genetic fragments of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus in the air of a barn holding a camel infected with the virus.
The findings, published in the American Society for Microbiology online journal mBio, showed that further studies are needed to see if the disease can be transmitted through the air.
In the new study, researchers collected three air samples on three consecutive days last November from a camel barn owned by a 43-year-old male MERS patient who lived south of the town of Jeddah. The man later died from the condition.
Lab tests showed that the first air sample, collected on Nov. 7, contained genetic fragments of the MERS virus. This was the same day that one of the patient's camels tested positive for the disease.
Additional experiments confirmed that these fragments were exactly identical to fragments detected in the camel and its sick owner.
Other air samples, however, did not test positive for the MERS virus, suggesting short or intermittent shedding of the virus into the air surrounding the camels, said lead author Esam Azhar, head of the Special Infectious Agents Unit at King Fahd Medical Research Center and associate professor of medical virology at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah.
"The clear message here is that detection of airborne MERS-CoV (coronavirus) molecules, which were 100 percent identical with the viral genomic sequence detected from a camel actively shedding the virus in the same barn on the same day, warrants further investigations and measures to prevent possible airborne transmission of this deadly virus," Azhar said.
"This study also underscores the importance of obtaining a detailed clinical history with particular emphasis on any animal exposure for any MERS-CoV case, especially because recent reports suggest higher risk of MERS-CoV infections among people working with camels," he added.
Meanwhile, he said, mounting evidence for camel-to-human transmission of MERS-CoV warrants taking precautionary measures. That is, people who care for camels or who work for slaughterhouses should wear face masks, gloves and protective clothing, and wash their hands frequently.
It is also important to avoid contact with animals that are sick or have tested positive for the MERS virus.
Those who visit camel barns, farms or markets should wash hands before and after contact with animals.
In addition, pasteurization of camel milk and proper cooking of camel meat are strongly recommended.
MERS, a serious viral respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus that was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, has been identified in at least 834 people, and at least 288 have died from the condition, according to the World Health Organization.