Saudi Arabian researchers have detected genetic fragments of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus [MERS-Cov] in the air of a barn holding infected camels.
The discovery indicates that further studies are needed to see whether the disease can be transmitted through the air.
MERS-CoV, which causes MERS, a serious respiratory virus, was first reported in 2012. According to the World Health Organisation, 209 people have died from the condition, with an additional 113 cases reported between 2012 and 2014 by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health.
For the study, researchers collected air samples on three consecutive days last November from a camel barn owned by a 43-year-old man, who lived south of the town of Jeddah.
Four of the camels had shown signs of the MERS virus, and they had subsequently infected the man, who later died.
The infected camels had shown signs of nasal discharge the week before the barn owner became ill, and he had applied a topical medicine in the nose of one of the infected animals seven days before experiencing symptoms.
Using a laboratory technique called reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) to detect gene expression, the researchers found that the first of the three air samples contained genetic fragments of MERS-CoV.
The other samples did not test positive for MERS-CoV, suggesting short or intermittent shedding of the virus into the air surrounding the camels, said lead study author Esam Azhar.
Additional experiments confirmed the presence of coronavirus-specific genetic sequences in the first air sample, and found that these fragments were identical to fragments detected in the camel and its sick owner.
"The clear message here is that detection of airborne MERS-CoV molecules, which were 100% 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," Azhar said.
"This study also underscores the importance of obtaining a detailed clinical history with particular emphasis on any animal exposure for any MERS-CoV case, especially because recent reports suggest higher risk of MERS-CoV infections among people working with camels," added the study leader, who serves as associate professor of medical virology at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah.
Researchers have advised those who work around camels in slaughterhouses, as well as those visiting camel barns, markets or farms, to wear gloves and protective clothing and wash their hands frequently.
In addition, pasteurisation of camel milk and proper cooking of camel meat are strongly recommended.