In the Kapiti nature reserve, in southern Kenya, PCR tests are regularly carried out on camels in order to detect a cousin of Covid-19, Mers-CoV, which could one day cause a global pandemic.
In Kenya, the International Livestock Research Institute has been studying local camels since the appearance in 2012 of a disturbing virus in Saudi Arabia, Mers-CoV, for Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. Dromedaries (Camelus dromedaries) constitute the natural reservoir of this virus.
Bats, pangolins, or even poultry … the world is discovering, with the Covid-19 pandemic, the extent of animal viruses which total 60% of human infectious diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) .
Mers-CoV has spread since 2012 in several countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. The disease has been reported in 27 countries, with nearly 2,500 cases and nearly 900 deaths, mostly in Saudi Arabia.
Handling camels is now considered a high-risk activity. In Saudi Arabia, 67% of breeders have been exposed, that is, they have developed antibodies against the virus. According to’WHO, it is through close contact with the dromedary that the Mers-CoV virus is transmitted to humans. Symptoms are similar to Covid-19 – fever, cough, difficulty breathing –, against a slight cold for the dromedary, but it is much more lethal, killing one in three patients.
Research led by Kenyan biologist Alice Kiyonga in 2014 revealed the existence of antibodies to the Seas for 46% of the dromedaries studied, but only for 5% of the humans tested: out of 111 camel drivers and slaughterhouse workers, only six were positive. .
“The Mers-CoV we currently have in Kenya is not easily transmitted to humans”Alice Kiyonga, Nairobi-based biologist
Here too, the emergence of variants that could make the Kenyan Seas more contagious to humans, obsesses researchers. “It’s exactly like with the Covid, (…) variants have appeared, such as B.1.1.7 (in England). It’s the same with the Seas: the virus is changing all the time “, underlines Eric Fèvre, specialist in infectious diseases in International Livestock Research Institute and at the University of Liverpool (United Kingdom). “I would love to have a crystal ball and be able to tell you if this will ever become extremely dangerous to humans or if, with a few genetic mutations, it will. I think the important thing is to maintain a monitoring effort ( …) because that way we will be ready when it happens “, continues Eric Fèvre.
In 2020, the UN Biodiversity Expert Group has warned that pandemics will be more frequent and deadly in the future due to increased contact between wildlife, livestock and humans, due to the destruction of the environment.