Researchers in Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday they have found genetic traces of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in the air of a barn that housed a sick camel in Jeddah, Saudi Gazette reported.
The study in mBio, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology, calls for further research to determine if the potentially fatal virus can be transmitted through the air.
MERS, a serious respiratory illness caused by a virus known as a coronavirus (CoV), has infected at least 850 people since it first emerged two years ago and killed at least 327 of them, according to latest figures from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
For this study led by Esam Azhar, associate professor of medical virology at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, researchers sampled the air inside a camel barn owned by a man who died of MERS.
Four of the man's camels had shown symptoms of MERS, including nasal discharge, and the owner directly applied a topical medicine to the nose of one of the sick animals a week before he fell ill.
The first air sample, taken on Nov. 7, the same day that one of the camels in the barn tested positive for MERS, showed that genetic fragments of MERS were present in the air.
However, samples taken on subsequent days did not detect the virus in the air.
Azhar said that might mean that the virus's shedding pattern is either short or intermittent.
Lab studies showed that the MERS genetic sequences found in the air were identical matches to the fragments in the sick camel and in the man who owned them.
"The clear message here is that detection of airborne MERS-CoV 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," said Azhar.
Viruses that spread through air - such as flu viruses for example - are far more likely to spread swiftly and widely in human populations than those that can only move from an animal to a person, or from person to person, via direct contact.