Research Highlights

Did humans acquire the common cold virus from camels?

Published online 13 September 2016

Scientists find answers in viral genes from bats, camels and humans. 

Biplab Das

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are coronaviruses that can infect and kill humans. A new study sheds light on their origins and ecological history, which thus far have been largely unknown.  

By sequencing and comparing the genes of coronaviruses in dromedary camels, bats and humans, an international research team has discovered that these viruses are related to a specific species of the human common cold virus known as HCoV-229E, transmitted to humans from camels1.

“By studying the genes of coronaviruses, we can better understand where these viruses came from. They most probably came from bats, but when they jumped from bats to camels remains unknown,” says Ulrich Wernery from the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. 

To infect cells, live camel common cold viruses use the same cell receptors used by the human common cold virus, raising the possibility that the former can infect humans. However, the camel viruses were unable to infect mucosa-derived cultured human cells, meaning that the virus’s overall capability for replication in the human respiratory or intestinal tract is low.

The risk of a future epidemic from camel-associated common cold viruses is limited, further tests involving human serum and animal common cold viruses showed.

“Although we are far from finding ways to combat coronavirus-related diseases, we are currently working towards that goal,” says Wernery.


  1. Corman, V. M. et al. Link of a ubiquitous human coronavirus to dromedary camels.  Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 113, 9864–9869 (2016).