Camel virus rampant in Qatar, should we fear?

Summer weather, air-conditioned open-air stadiums and viruses? A few days before the kick-off of the very controversial 2022 World Cup, Qatar is preparing to host the sporting high mass, its parade of national teams and fans from all over the world.

But after almost three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, another coronavirus poses a health threat to this world: the camel virus, a potentially dangerous respiratory virus. Anything to worry about? Is this virus easily transmitted? Can there be an infection?

What is camel virus and where is it found?

It belongs to the family of coronaviruses, like Covid-19 and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). It was identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, earning it the name MERS-CoV, for the coronavirus Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which has been attributed to it by the World Health Organization. WER)”, explains to 20 minutes Vincent Enouf, virologist and deputy director of the National Reference Center (CNR) for influenza at the Pasteur Institute.

This is a direct indication of its distribution location. “A few imported cases have been reported marginally, but MERS has always remained very local, limited to this region of the world,” assures the virologist. Since it was published in 2012, “twenty-seven countries have reported cases of MERS to the WHO,” explains the organization in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States. And “about 80% of human cases have been reported by Saudi Arabia, mainly after direct or indirect contact with infected camels or infected people in health facilities, WHO confirms. Cases identified outside the Middle East are usually people who appear to have contracted the infection in the Middle East and then traveled to areas outside the region.”

And if it is also called the camel virus, it is because of the way it is transmitted through direct contact with the region’s flagship animals, camels and dromedaries, which can be carriers and infect humans.

Is this coronavirus dangerous? What are its symptoms?

As with Covid-19 and seasonal flu, “among the usual symptoms we find MERS fever, cough and shortness of breath,” explains the WHO. The presence of pneumonia is common, but patients with MERS do not always develop the condition. Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea have also been reported in these patients. In addition, “severe forms of the disease can result in respiratory failure requiring mechanical ventilation and treatment in intensive care units.” Either a similar clinical picture as with Covid-19. Likewise, “the most severe cases of MERS and related deaths mainly affected at-risk individuals with comorbidities,” notes Vincent Enouf.

But the two coronaviruses differ in certain respects. There is currently no treatment or vaccine for MERS. And the camel virus is associated with a very high lethality rate, since according to the numbers “approx. 35% of cases of MERS-CoV infection reported to WHO resulted in patient death,” the organization states. “However, since we discovered this virus, we know that there are many healthy carriers. Population immunity has probably established itself locally,” says Vincent Enouf, annoyed. There is “a possible overestimation of the true mortality rate, as mild cases of MERS-CoV may have escaped existing surveillance systems,” the WHO abounds. But the numbers don’t compare to Covid-19: since its discovery in 2012, around 2,500 cases of MERS have been reported to the WHO, leading to this 858 dead.

However, if MERS infection is suspected, the French Foreign Ministry recommends “seeing a doctor immediately on site if you have a high fever, cough and/or breathing difficulties. And in case of fever or difficulty breathing in the days following your return to France, call Center 15 and report your trip.”

Is there a risk of spreading the virus and can we protect ourselves from it?

“This is not a major issue in the CNR laboratories today,” assures Vincent Enouf. There is no epidemic situation. But with an event like the World Cup, where thousands of people from all over the world come to Qatar, there is no such thing as zero risk. It’s just impossible to quantify. Perhaps there will be some imported cases of humans coming back infected from Qatar, as we have seen in the past, after coming into contact with camelids. At the time it happened, it did not result in later spread: MERS has limited human-to-human transmissibility, much lower than Covid-19.”

For the time being, no restrictions have been imposed by French health authorities on their nationals traveling to Qatar. However, in its travel advice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises “to avoid as much as possible any contact with animals, especially camels and dromedaries. It is strongly discouraged to consume camel meat or camel milk.” And given the still active circulation of Covid-19 and the risk of MERS, the ministry insists on respect for barrier gestures: “Classic hygiene measures are recommended to reduce the risk of transmission limit, in particular regular hand washing with soap and water or with a hydroalcoholic solution”.

Because, as I said, Covid-19 is still part of the picture. “We are still noticing it around the world and a significant resurgence of the epidemic is being observed, especially in China,” recalls Vincent Enouf. So if travelers are careful to respect barrier gestures, they will kill two birds with one stone against Covid-19 and MERS.”

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