Thursday 15 October 2015

MERS and the media in Saudi Arabia - a match that fuels confusion....

I'm interrupting my reviews on MERS and camels to briefly critique a recent media article published in the Arab News, Wednesday 14th of October. This was also on camels, but a view into the other side of this story.

The title of the article: ‘No conclusive proof’ camels spread MERS: Expert.[1]

There are two trains of thought here - and perhaps I have not clarified them so far. The first train doesn't believe that camels have a role in human cases of MERS-I disagree completely with the sentiment here. The second train of thought wants more testing of more and different animal species. I agree with this wholeheartedly. And those who can do this should be getting on with the job of doing it or organising those who can do it instead of wishing the data we absolutely do have, were different.

Let's keep in mind that seeking out other sources is a research endeavour. You cannot write public health messaging around things for which you have absolutely no supporting evidence. You can't protect your population, especially those most at risk, if you don't have proof to support how they are at risk. Looking after the public's health requires data. Research gets those data. Support the research. Look at those data instead of ignoring them because they scare you, point a finger at your favourite animal or conjure fears of an animal-driven negative economic impact. 

Distancing humans from infected camel vectors is a here and now action. It is not the result of a future research study. Finding ways to act on the data may have an impact on cases. 

Rather than guess at what people's concerns are - let's have a read of some key sections of this article, and comment as we go.

"There is no conclusive evidence that shows camels are responsible for the spread of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), according to research conducted by a Saudi expert at King Saud University in Riyadh."

  • This is plain wrong. There is considerable body of peer reviewed scientific literature providing evidence both for spread among camels and between camels and humans, even data strongly suggesting that direction (camel>human). A review I co-authored last year goes into a lot of that detail - it has a huge table on the camel related literature.[2]

“All the studies published in scientific journals do not at this stage show that the blood samples taken from camels have the virus present."

  • This is an English language article so I am going to take that at face value. Virus in the blood, or viraemia, is not considered a major concern for spread human or camel MERS-CoV infection - the real and larger concern is virus, in high amounts, that is regularly identified in the nose of infected camels. This is quote is not evidence of an expert comment.

"The reality is that more than 80 percent of the tested samples prove that camels’ blood carry protective antibodies against the virus,” he said."
  • Again, this comment highlights a lack of expertise in virology or immunology. Fields important for this discussion. The camels have antibodies because they have been previously infected. Research has found that camels seem capable of being reinfected - infected again even when they already have antibody from a previous infection. These camel antibodies may not be protective. Cell mediated immunity (h/t @MarionKoopmans) may be an important study subject here to better understand what happens in camels.

"He said some studies have found that 5 to 6 percent of shepherds and persons dealing with camels carry antibodies against MERS, and do not have the virus itself."
  • This is where a science reporter would have been really helpful to Arab News. Shepherds (camel herders?) don't have the virus by the time they develop antibodies because, like many viruses, MERS-CoV causes a short-lived, or acute, infection in humans and camels. Those few percent of shepherds with antibodies were previously infected and the virus was subsequently cleared by their immune system, usually near to or before those antibodies develop.

“In our previous studies we found out that Heavy Chain Antibodies are present in the blood of camels and are carried out with its milk. This research was published in the Journal of Proteomics. This in itself proves that immunity is transferred from camels to humans,” he said."
  • This does no such thing at all. This shows that antibodies are in camel blood and milk - if indeed that was what was found. What are the previous studies that showed these antibodies were ingested by humans and survived the digestive tract to remain effective against MERS-CoV? There are none that I have read but I'd be interested in seeing them.

Science tests and measures, it calculates and concludes. Very little of that process is evident here, but a sense of the confusion around this topic is. These stories should be great starting points for the Saudi Ministry of Health to work up local, relevant and specific answers, (more) factsheets or Ministry-involved media interviews and internet posts to help educate those with concerns about there camels. Listen, communicate, take feedback, re-tune, communicate, listen....


  1. ‘No conclusive proof’ camels spread MERS: Expert
  2. Middle East respiratory syndrome: An emerging coronavirus infection tracked by the crowd.

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