“Camel virus” at the World Cup in Qatar: itinerary of a crazy rumor
“Fake news”, protests François Balloux. Like many scientists, the director of the Institute of Genetics in London is disgusted by the claim that a “camel virus is widespread in Qatar”, to use the title of a video from the Israeli television channel i24News. No case of this virus, MERS-CoV by its real name, has actually been identified on the sidelines of the Football World Cup. So where does this scary rumor come from for a few days?
It all starts with an alert launched in the United Kingdom and announced by The Sun on Sunday, December 11. The British public health agency is asking doctors to be “particularly alert to the possibility of MERS in travelers returning from World Cup”, which will be held in Qatar until this Sunday.
This MERS-CoV virus, for “Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus”, was first identified in Saudi Arabia in April 2012, the Institut Pasteur reports. Silently circulating in camels and dromedaries, it can be transmitted to humans. About 2,600 cases have been identified over ten years in 27 countries. MERS-CoV is particularly dangerous, as approximately 30% of diagnosed patients die from it, according to the World Health Organization.
Three English supporters are affected, really?
Back to December 11. On this same day searches for “camel virus” (“camel virus”) or “camel flu” (“camel flu”) become unusually frequent on Google.
Two days later, a scientific article published in The Lancet also warned. Two major events organized simultaneously in Qatar at the end of the year, namely the Football World Cup and a camel competition, risk “causing major global epidemics” if people become infected with MERS-CoV -2 without realizing it. Football fans and competition participants are urged to avoid any contact with the camels during their stay at the site, in particular.
On Tuesday, December 13, I24News reported that “three English supporters have returned with deadly flu symptoms”. Problem: we found no source reporting these three sick fans, due to MERS-CoV infection. Even some media may have been misled by a user who did not understand “The Three Lions”, the nickname of the English team.
In the following days, MERS became one of the most discussed on Twitter. To the point that some scientists, such as epidemiologist Antoine Flahault, have openly hypothesized that MERS-CoV is the cause of the mysterious “viral syndrome” that has affected at least five players from the French team. Contacted, the director of the Geneva Institute of Global Health indicates that he took a hypothesis read in the press, and regrets “the current omerta vis-à-vis the mysterious virus that will affect the French team”.
“Increasing panic is irresponsible”
Ultimately, the risk of MERS-CoV spreading is real and is anticipated by health authorities. But no case has been identified to date since the start of the World Cup, and Public Health France has recalled that only two patients have been identified this year in the Arabian Peninsula – the last in April.
“The transmission of zoonotic pathogens to humans is a serious threat, which must be taken seriously”, but “causing panic over epidemics that have not yet occurred is irresponsible because it destroys society’s capacity to respond appropriately if and when there is serious stuff. happens,” said François Balloux. And as Forbes magazine says, “just because something spreads on Twitter doesn’t mean it spreads in real life.”