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Saudi Arabia rules out camel import ban despite MERS fears - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Camels are displayed during the Mazayen al-Ibl competition, a parade of the "most beautiful camels", in Tabouk, 1500 km (932 miles) from Riyadh in this November 27, 2012 file photo. (Reuters)

Camels are displayed during the Mazayen Al-Ibl competition, a parade of the “most beautiful camels,” in Tabouk, 932 miles (1500 km) from Riyadh in this November 27, 2012, file photo. (Reuters)

Jeddah and Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi Arabia has ruled out a ban on camel imports amid a crackdown on unlicensed animal dealers and growing fears of the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) across the Kingdom.

To date a total of 449 Saudi citizens have been diagnosed with the disease, which is caused by a strain of the coronavirus believed to be spread by camels. More than 100 of those infected have died.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, an undersecretary of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Jaber Al-Shihri, said that Riyadh has no intention of banning camel imports, but emphasized that safety and health measures will be taken with imported livestock.

Imported camels are thoroughly checked by Saudi health ministry teams to decide whether they should be transferred to local markets or destroyed, Shihri said.

He stressed that the Agriculture Ministry is doing everything in its power to cooperate with the Health Ministry, which is tasked with dealing with the MERS epidemic.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia reported that four more people had died of MERS, in addition to 18 new infections.

Riyadh has formed a special commission made up of representatives of four ministries to investigate and deal with the MERS outbreak, focusing in particular on the relationship between the syndrome and a strain of the coronavirus found in camels.

The commission has launched a campaign to crack down on unlicensed camel traders and stables.

A number of scientific studies have been published in recent weeks showing a link between MERS and camels, with researchers from Columbia University, King Saud University and the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance isolating the coronavirus from two camels. Genetic analysis of the virus taken from camels found a number of sub-strains, including one that matched sub-strains isolated from human patients.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia’s acting health minister, Adel Fakieh, launched a campaign to raise awareness about the virus and measures to halt its spread. He specifically urged citizens to avoid sick camels and refrain from eating raw camel meat or drinking unboiled camel milk.

Reporting by Saeed Al-Abyad and Iman Al Khataf