The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS, could be an airborne virus, according to an observation paper published Tuesday in mBio. Scientists are still learning about the deadly infection, which first appeared in 2012, but new information suggests that the virus could be airborne.
There have been 836 laboratory-confirmed cases of MERS infection and at least 288 related deaths have been reported to the World Health Organization, according to CNN.
The latest information comes from researchers from King Fahd Medical Research Center in Saudi Arabia, who collected three air samples from a camel barn. The researchers previously found MERS in a camel from that barn the same time that its owner also tested positive. The owner eventually died from the infection.
After analyzing the air samples taken from the barn, the scientists found one strain of MERS RNA, the viral genome. The barn air tested positive for MERS the exact same day the camel also tested positive. The virus from the air sample was also identical to the virus found in the nasal samples taken from the infected camel and its owner.
The study authors wrote, “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.”
Reuters notes that scientists aren’t sure what the origin of the MERS virus is, but several studies have linked it to camels. Some experts think it is being passed to humans through close physical contact with camels or the consumption of camel meat or camel milk.
Esam Azhar, an associate professor of medical virology and the study’s leader, explained of the results, “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.”
One of the three air samples tests was positive for the MERS virus, suggesting that the camels shed the virus into the air around them in short or intermittent bursts.
The air samples warrant further testing, according to experts, because the results may not mean that MERS is transmitted easily through the air. Dr. Mark Denison, a professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, explained that the MERS virus particles may be airborne, but it doesn’t mean that the coronavirus is transmitted through the air.
Dr. Denison noted that the key point is the difference between dead virus particles and a viable virus. He added, “I could take billions of particles of dead viruses and could still find the RNA. That doesn’t mean that there are infections aerosols.”
Experts agree that more testing is needed to know whether the MERS coronavirus can be transmitted through the air.