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Goats: potential carriers of the new coronavirus?

A Saudi man sits next to his sheep at an animal market in Riyadh in December 2008. (Fahad Shadeed/Reuters)

Scientists still have no idea how people are getting infected by the novel coronavirus, or which animal might be spreading it to humans.

But yesterday, Eurosurveillance published a paper detailing the investigation of a Qatari patient who was treated in Germany in October and November. And it had this interesting tidbit:

"The patient owned a camel and goat farm and reported a large number of casual contacts (approx. 50 persons per day) on a regular basis. He remembered that before his disease onset some goats were ill and had fever. He did not have direct contact with the goats or any other animals especially falcons or bats, but said he had eaten goat meat. He also reported to have had contact with one of his animal caretakers who was ill with severe cough and was hospitalised."

Since April 2012, the virus has infected 13 people and killed seven — cases so far have been linked with Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Evidence strongly suggests the new coronavirus originated in bats — and since people don't tend to hang around bats too much, scientists are also considering the possibility that the virus is passing to an intermediary animal which, in turn, is infecting humans.

In a previous Eurosurveillance paper, we learned that one of the first known coronavirus patients spent time on a ranch where there were camels and sheep — although he apparently didn't contact them directly. 

But in this latest report, one detail leaps out: the sick goats. When it comes to zoonotic diseases, unusual animal illnesses or deaths can act as warning signs for human outbreaks. Case in point, avian flu: when there is a human infection, chances are there will also be a lot of dead chickens nearby.

Dr. Anthony Mounts, the WHO's technical lead on the novel coronavirus, said goats — and camels — are definitely among the animals investigators are poking and prodding in their search for the virus.

"We don't really know where this virus is lurking, what kind of animal it might be circulating in," he said. "But certainly, if you had a sick animal that someone had been exposed to, that would really raise a red flag."

But he points out that there are multiple routes a virus could take to get into people. Nipah virus, for example, is a bat virus that can infect pigs, which have caused human outbreaks in Malaysia and Singapore; but in Bangladesh, studies have suggested that people there are getting infected by drinking raw palm date juice collected in clay pots -- which fruit bats like to slurp from at night.

Aside from this latest Eurosurveillance report, Mounts said he is not aware of any other reports of unusual animal illnesses or deaths that might be linked to the novel coronavirus.

The goats — they "could just be a red herring," Mounts said. "It could be that there are different sources, different routes of transmission."

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


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Any lead is a good lead given the little progress that we have at this stage.

Please allow me to add to this interesting article with Jay Ingram's recent book "Fatal Flaws:How a Misfolded Protein Baffled Scientists and Changed the Way we Look at the Brain."

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