Kenya is hunting for the next deadly virus with huge swabs and grumpy camels

The camel kicks and grunts under the reluctance of three men and makes its displeasure known when Kenyan veterinarian Nelson Kipchirchir whirls a giant swab into the nostril of the grumpy dromedary.

It turns out that camels don’t like being tested for coronavirus either.

However, research is critical to better understanding the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – a far more deadly cousin of Covid-19 that scientists fear could trigger the next global pandemic.

The fear is that this virus, which has been spreading among camels and, to a lesser extent, their owners in Kenya for some time, could mutate and spread a new strain beyond the herding communities to the general population.

So Kipchirchir has no choice but to risk the wrath of the edgy, 300-pound camel to collect important nose and blood samples.

“Sampling any animal is difficult in the sense that you never know what’s going to happen … if you do the wrong thing it can get tougher in the sense that it can kick you and bite you,” Kipchirchir said in the Kapiti Plain in southern Kenya.

On this foggy morning, a camel driver gets a heavy kick from a dozen of the irritable creatures who underwent the ordeal at the 13,000 acre Kapiti ranch.

Kapiti is part of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) headquartered in Nairobi and its research station on the ranch, where wildlife, cattle and sheep are examined by scientists.

ILRI began research on camels in Kenya in 2013, one year after the emergence of MERS in Saudi Arabia, a coronavirus that kills an estimated 35 percent of those infected, according to the World Health Organization. Around 850 deaths were recorded.

MERS is a zoonotic virus believed to have been transmitted from bats to camels. It causes symptoms similar to Covid-19 in humans: fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.

The emergence of Covid-19, which killed nearly three million people worldwide in 16 months, has sharpened the focus on the next virus that could skip from animals to humans or, in the case of MERS, mutate and become even more transmissible.

WHO experts believe that Covid-19 jumped from bats to humans via an as yet unidentified intermediate animal.

According to the WHO, around 60 percent of infectious diseases in humans are of zoonotic origin.

The United Nations Scientific Advisory Board on Biodiversity called IPBES warned in 2020 that pandemics are becoming more common and deadly due to environmental degradation and climate change that lead to increased contact between humans, farm animals and wildlife.

Also read: Kenyan farmers swim in tomatoes and bananas and anticipate the costs of coronavirus

IPBES warned of up to 850,000 viruses that could potentially infect humans, with five new diseases breaking out in humans each year – each with the potential to become a pandemic.

“With the whole Covid problem, there is renewed interest in everything to do with viruses and everything to do with zoonoses,” said Eric Fevre, Infectious Disease Specialist at ILRI and the University of Liverpool in the UK.

There are around three million camels in Kenya, one of the largest populations in the world, and their popularity grows in arid areas as shepherds adapt to more frequent droughts that destroy cattle and other livestock.

Meanwhile, the demand for camel milk and meat is growing.

“A camel is very important,” said Isaac Mohamed, one of the shepherds in Kapiti, who hails from Kenya’s far, dry north, which borders Ethiopia and Somalia, and which is also home to massive camel populations.

“First, it cannot die when (there is) drought. Second, a camel can go without water for up to 30 days. Third, when you move around, you can use the camel to carry your belongings.”

At the ILRI laboratory in Nairobi, biologist Alice Kiyong’a receives a steady stream of samples from camels across Kenya, which she analyzes for the presence of MERS.

A study she led in 2014 showed MERS antibodies in 46 percent of the camels examined and in five percent of the camel handlers and slaughterhouse workers tested.

“The MERS that we currently have in Kenya is not easily transferable to humans,” she said in comparison to Saudi Arabia.

However, researchers are obsessed with the likelihood of a variant emerging that could make Kenyan MERS more contagious to humanity.

“It’s just like Covid … new varieties have appeared … it’s the same with MERS, the virus is always changing,” said Fevre.

“I wish I had a crystal ball and I could tell you that it could never be very dangerous for humans,” he added.

“However, it could be with a few genetic mutations. I think the most important thing is to keep up surveillance efforts … because then we’ll be ready when it happens.”

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