Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) transmission from dromedaries to humans has resulted in major outbreaks in the Middle East. Although some other livestock animal species have been shown to be susceptible to MERS-CoV, it is not fully understood why the spread of the virus in these animal species has not been observed in the field. In this study, we used rabbits to further characterize the transmission potential of MERS-CoV. In line with the presence of MERS-CoV receptor in the rabbit nasal epithelium, high levels of viral RNA were shed from the nose following virus inoculation. However, unlike MERS-CoV-infected dromedaries, these rabbits did not develop clinical manifestations including nasal discharge and did shed only limited amounts of infectious virus from the nose. Consistently, no transmission by contact or airborne routes was observed in rabbits. Our data indicate that despite relatively high viral RNA levels produced, low levels of infectious virus are excreted in the upper respiratory tract of rabbits as compared to dromedary camels, thus resulting in a lack of viral transmission.
Keywords: MERS-coronavirus; rabbits; transmission.