Noah, it turns out, was on to something. If you want to get camels to go where they don’t want to go — into a laboratory, say — it’s best to let them travel two-by-two.
Spanish and Dutch researchers say that was among the epiphanies they had during what proved to be a rare and challenging scientific study recently — working with camels in a high-containment laboratory.
The scientists wanted to test an experimental vaccine intended to protect camels against the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, better known as MERS. Their findings showed that there might be hope for such a vaccine, one that could slow the transmission of the disease from camels to humans.
But their experience in simply conducting the study at all opens an interesting window on the practical challenges that sometimes come along with scientific research. For all the study results published every week around the world, it’s easy to overlook what it took to get them done.
In the MERS study, Joaquim Segalés, the director of the Research Center for Animal Health in Barcelona, had no choice but to confront the obstacles.
“Camels are not a very, let’s say, cooperative kind of animal from this point of view,’’ Segalés told STAT. “To get them out from the truck was not that easy. To get them into the facility was not that easy. And to get them into the box (holding pen) was not that easy. Trying to push them in was quite difficult sometimes. And the worst-case scenario was trying to take them out.”
Challenges arose from the get-go. The researchers could not easily import camels into Europe from Africa or the Middle East. There are stringent rules in place to protect Europe from foot-and-mouth disease, a devastating livestock illness, and Africa and the Middle East are not free of the virus that causes it.
But Bart Haagmans, the Dutch virologist who would design the study, knew there were camels on the Canary Islands, located off the coast of Africa, but legally part of Spain. He and some colleagues had tested blood drawn from camels there for antibodies to the MERS virus a couple of years ago.
Canary Island camels can travel to Barcelona without crossing a border. And Segalés’s lab, known by its Spanish acronym CReSA, had a high-biosecurity lab space designed for work with large animals.
And so eight young camels were purchased and shipped by boat to mainland Europe.
The Dutch researchers had mostly worked with small, traditional laboratory animals. Their Spanish colleagues had experience with larger animals — sheep and cows. They had also worked with wild animals, including falcons, mountain goats, deer, which are not commonly used in lab work.
But none had a smidgeon of experience working in a lab with dromedaries — the one-hump camel variety — especially not a high-containment lab that requires workers to don spacesuit-like apparel for their own protection.
They quickly learned getting a camel to do something it is disinclined to do is a chore. “Sometimes things that you might do in half an hour, it took almost two hours,” Segalés said. “They are quite stubborn.”
Camels, it seems, don’t like to be pulled. Or pushed. Or shoved. At a point, when the team was trying to lead the animals into a room they had never been in before, the camels balked, sticking their legs out wider than the doorframe.
“If you can leave the animals alone, just moving by themselves without anyone pulling them, it’s better,” said David Solanes, CReSA’s head of technical services. But that was not always possible, Segalés said. “The problem is if you leave the animal to do it by themselves you can stay hours waiting for that.”
Over time, the team learned that the animals, gregarious by nature, preferred not to be alone.
“They are scared,” Segalés explained. “So the possibility of moving only one was extremely, extremely difficult.”
“You can imagine that a human being of 60, 70, 80 kilos” — a kilogram is 2.2 pounds — “to move such a big animal is almost impossible, if the animal is reluctant to move. When they [sense] a companion, then the animals move easier. I wouldn’t say in an easy way. Easier.”
Even though the study involved young camels, the animals weighed roughly 550 pounds. That meant researchers were at risk of being pinned and crushed — not because the animals were ill-tempered, but because of their sheer size and the fact they were penned.
So researchers always had to work in at least pairs, for safety’s sake — especially when they were swabbing the camels’ noses. The animals — four vaccinated, four unvaccinated — had MERS viruses puffed up their noses. Later, their noses had to be swabbed to see if they were emitting the viruses.
Picture a big cotton swab, something like the ones you might use to clean your ears – though on a much longer stick. Taking a nose swab involves plugging deep into a nostril and swirling it about.
“Well, I can tell you that dromedaries don’t like swabbing. They hate nasal swabbing,” Segalés said. Someone had to swab while someone else tried to keep the camels’ heads still.
While the vaccine appeared to work well, it will need to be tested in more animals. And the researchers are hoping those new tests can be done in something other than camels.
They have funding from the European Union through a program designed to prepare for the emergence of zoonoses, animal diseases that spill over into people. The ZAPI project, as it is called, will fund testing of other animals to see if alpacas or some other more manageable animal can stand in for camels.
That would be ideal, Solanes said. “If you have an easier species to work with, it’s better than to work with dromedaries.”