This is how it can all start — it’s all about the variants

MERS-Causing Coronavirus Could Trigger Another Pandemic With Just a Few More Mutations: Study

By TWC India Edit Team

11 June, 2021

TWC India

Representative Image (IANS)
Representative Image(IANS)

Coronavirus. Pandemic. Zoonotic disease. Viral transmission. Over the past one-and-a-half years, the world has been forced to familiarise itself with the aforementioned terms, owing to its battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. If we aren’t careful, these words could continue being a part of our everyday lives in newer ways, a new study has warned.

An international team of researchers has found that the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS‐CoV), which causes the Middle East respiratory syndrome, is just a few mutations away from becoming a serious pandemic threat!

But before we understand how it could potentially trigger another pandemic, let us first understand what the disease itself is.

What is Middle East respiratory syndrome?

As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory disease that was first identified in Saudi Arabia back in 2012. It is highly lethal, with approximately 35% of reported patients with MERS-CoV infection having succumbed to the disease.

Just like COVID-19, the clinical spectrum of MERS-CoV infection ranges from no symptoms (asymptomatic) or mild respiratory symptoms to severe acute respiratory disease and death. Typical MERS symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Most human cases of MERS-CoV infections have been attributed to human-to-human infections in healthcare settings. However, the virus does not seem to pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact—like the kind that occurs when providing unprotected care to a patient. Such healthcare-associated MERS outbreaks have occurred in several countries in the past, with the largest seen in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Republic of Korea.

The disease is caused by the coronavirus named MERS-CoV—a zoonotic virus that was transmitted to humans through direct or indirect contact with infected dromedary camels (Arabian camels). MERS-CoV has been identified in dromedaries in several countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

What does the new research say?

Dromedary camels from a study site in Ethiopia. (Eve Miguel)
Dromedary camels from a study site in Ethiopia.(Eve Miguel)

Since the initial MERS outbreak, researchers have found that up to 80% of dromedaries that have been tested—70% of which live in Africa—have antibodies for MERS-CoV. This very finding raises the question as to why more African people have not been infected by the virus, considering the high number of dromedaries and their interactions with humans on the African continent.

To answer this mystery, the researchers conducted a new study wherein they collected samples of the virus from a variety of places in the Middle East and Africa and grouped them into different clades (natural groups). After comparing the samples genetically and under lab conditions using human lung cells, they found that the variants originating in Arabian clades were easily transmissible to humans, while the variants in African clades were not.

Closer examination revealed that the differences between the variants came down to amino acids in the S protein. In fact, the African variant had to be genetically engineered to have the same amino acids as the Middle Eastern variant, for it to possess the ability to easily infect human cells.

These results led the researchers to believe that the reason why the African variant has not mutated to infect humans is due to the one-way nature of the dromedary trade—the animals are only being traded from Africa to the Middle East.

But if the trade reverses at some point, or another animal becomes a carrier and is traded to Africa, mutations could arise. And once this ball of mutations gets rolling, researchers conclude that it could potentially set off a health crisis in Africa, and even give rise to another deadly pandemic!

The study and its results have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be accessed here.

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