Saudi Arabia suspects a virus that has killed hundreds of people there may have arrived in camels from the Horn of Africa, and could ban such imports until it knows more, the kingdom's chief scientist told Reuters.
Any ban on the camel trade with the region would badly hurt the already fragile economy of Somalia, which is a major livestock exporter to Saudi Arabia.
Tariq Madani, who heads the scientific advisory board of the Saudi health ministry command and control center (CCC) - set up to handle the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS - said scientists are currently testing camels at sea ports before authorities allow them in.
MERS was first identified in humans in 2012 and is caused by a coronavirus from the same viral family as the one that caused a deadly outbreak of SARS in China in 2003. More than 700 people in Saudi Arabia have contracted it and 292 of them have died, according to latest data from the Saudi health ministry.
"We do have suspicions that the disease may have been imported through camel trade from the Horn of Africa, but we haven't proved it yet," Madani told Reuters in a telephone interview from Jeddah.
He said the final decision on a ban on camel imports from the region lies with the agriculture ministry. Officials there could not be reached for comment but Madani said the ministry "hasn't yet released an official ban for the importation of camels", although colleagues there had told him such a move is "under consideration".
"We have always imported camels from the African Horn.... but we will stop that until we get more information on whether they are infected or not," he said.
Saudi Arabia has previously been criticized for its handling of the MERS outbreak, which public health experts say could have been under control by now if officials and scientists there had been more willing to collaborate on studies into how the virus operates and where it is coming from.
Much more scientific research is needed to nail down the source of the MERS infections in humans and exactly how it makes the leap, but preliminary studies suggest the virus's animal reservoir is likely to be camels.
Viruses frequently jump from animals into people in what are called zoonotic events - and while many of them peter out, some can develop into human epidemics.
"Since this is a zoonotic disease we are collaborating with the