As the old saying doesn't go, camels may be the straw that that breaks scientists' backs as they labor to uncover the origins of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), according to research published on Friday in the scientific journal The Lancet.
Researchers tested dromedary camels and found evidence of a virus that looked very much like MERS, a coronavirus that has already killed 46 people and infected over 90, mostly in the Middle East.
More investigation is needed, but the findings may help scientists unravel the MERS mystery.
"[W]ithout any clues about the sources of infection except for people who caught it from other patients, these new results suggest that dromedary camels may be one reservoir," said lead researcher Chantal Reusken of the Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health, according to NBC News.
Scientists analyzed the blood of a variety of animals from several countries and discovered low levels of antibodies, the proteins that respond to viruses, in 15 Canary Islands camels (out of about 100 tested) and higher levels 50 Oman camels, reported BBC News. There are no known human cases of MERS in either country.
"What this study has shown is antibodies in the camels, that means that camels have been infected at some point in time and that produced antibodies," Tarik Jasarevic, the spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, told reporters on Friday, said NBC.
"It is a smoking gun, but it is not definitive proof," Professor Marion Koopmans, another researcher in the Lancet study team, told the BBC.
"So basically [the new research] gives us some clue and direction to go but we still don't know what is the source of the virus and most importantly we still don't know what kind of exposure makes humans [become] infected," Jasarevic told the press, according to NBC. The virus is no longer considered a threat to global health, but it is being closely monitored by health officials worldwide because so little is known about it.
What would help clarify matters? "The definitive proof would be to isolate the virus from an infected animal or to be able to sequence and characterize the genome from an infected animal," professor Paul Kellam of Britain's Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge and University College London explained to the BBC.