The virus responsible for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) may also infect humans through their intestinal tracts, a new study suggested Wednesday.
The findings, published in the U.S. journal Science Advances, indicated that MERS infections can spread through fecal to oral transmission or fomite transmission when the virus persists in the environment for a prolonged period.
"The MERS epidemic has persisted for five years. Because MERS primarily manifests as a respiratory infection, airway exposure is intuitively assumed to be the only infection route," said Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist of the University of Hong Kong, who led the study.
"Our study suggested that the human intestinal tract may serve as an alternative infection route for MERS," Yuen wrote in an email to Xinhua.
The MERS virus was first identified as a novel one causing human respiratory infection in 2012.
Since then, more than 2,000 cases have been reported to the World Health Organization, including 710 deaths.
While camel-to-human and human-to-human transmissions of the virus have been well-documented, many infections occurred in patients who have not been in direct contact with infected individuals or camels.
In the new study, Yuen's team studied how the MERS virus infected human intestinal cells and mouse models.
They found human intestinal epithelial cells were highly susceptible to the MERS virus and supported viral replication.
They verified these results in intestinal organoids, and also found evidence of infection via the gastrointestinal tract in mouse models engineered with a human MERS virus receptor.
"Our findings may have important implications for MERS diagnosis and treatment as well as for halting the continuing MERS epidemic," Yuen said.