LONDON, June 27 (Reuters) - 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 centre (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 criticised 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 ministry of agriculture to answer the question of whether these camels imported from the African Horn are possible sources of infection," Madani said.
Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest market for livestock from Somalia, with at least 70 percent of Somali exports going to the kingdom. The rest go mostly to other Middle East states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Qatar and Egypt.
Somalia exported about 4.7 million animals in 2013. Sheep and goats account for roughly 80 percent, followed by camels and some cattle.
Most exports go via two Gulf of Aden ports - Bossaso and Berbera - in two breakaway regions of northern Somalia, but the animals come from all over the country, with some arriving across porous borders with southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.
Madani said that while Saudi Arabia does have some domestic camels, most of those used for meat and trade are imported from the Horn of Africa.
Lisa Murillo, an expert in virology and affiliate scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, said she had analysed data on human MERS cases in the Middle East and camel imports from the Horn of Africa - and found striking correlations that cry out for further investigation.
As a result of her findings, Murillo says she has developed what she acknowledges is a "very speculative hypothesis" - that the number of MERS cases in Arabian Peninsula countries is related to the number of camels imported into those countries.
"That correlation just leaps off the page," she told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"The most important thing we need to be doing right now - outside of Saudi Arabia and the UAE - is looking for human and camel cases of MERS in the Horn of Africa - particularly in the ports of Somalia," she said. "If it turns out to be in camels there, why wouldn't it be in humans there as well?"
Madani said teams of scientists working under his leadership at the CCC were doing exactly that in Saudi.
"As we speak we are doing a study on camels imported from the Horn of Africa," he said. "We are taking samples from them in the sea ports before they are allowed in, and we're also taking samples from people handling them to test them for antibodies."
Murillo said data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation on national camel stocks in 2012 show there were 7 million camels in Somalia compared with 260,000 in Saudi Arabia.
Experts say that if Saudi Arabia does ban imports from Somalia, it could have a severe impact on a nation struggling to rebuild itself while an Islamist insurgency rages.
A previous Saudi ban on Somali livestock exports in 2000 - the concerns then was rinderpest and Rift Valley fever - hammered the economy before it was lifted in 2009. From 2 million head shipped in 2008, exports jumped to 3 million in 2009 and hit 4.8 million in 2012, according to an EU official.
"It would be very serious, quite devastating," Ernest Njoroge, Somalia programme officer in charge of livestock and fisheries for the European Union. "In the year 2000, there was a total ban of the livestock and that was very very devastating."
Some African traders grumble that exports are already looking weak in 2014, although the peak export season is only just starting.
Most shipments are made before the Muslim holidays of Eid el-Fitr - at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan which begins this coming weekend - and Eid al-Adha which follows a few weeks later.
Njoroge said it would become clear how the trade is doing only in about October or November.
"Most Somalis depend on livestock and when there is no export there is an economic crisis, particularly for the pastoralists and traders," said Ahmed Hussein, a livestock trader speaking to Reuters by telephone from Baladweyne, a town in central Somalia. He said business was slow.
"When livestock is exported there is circulation of money. Now since there is no export, the livestock price is down locally," he added.
Abdisalan Omar, a restaurant owner in Mogadishu, said male camels for export can sell for $700 to $900 (411-528 pounds), but go for $400 to $500 when sold for domestic consumption.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi, Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu and Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Simon Robinson and David Stamp)