Kansas State University professor searches for deadly diseases on Mongolian steppe
Temperatures on the Mongolian steppe dropped well below freezing at night as Kansas State University professor Juergen Richt traveled across the sparsely populated country in an old Toyota Land Cruiser searching for camels.
In a country where animals outnumber people 70 million to 3 million, Richt, a veterinarian doctor and director of Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases, spent a week in September surveying animals known to carry diseases capable of jumping to humans — particularly, the double-humped Bactrian camel and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a potentially deadly virus relatively new to humans. During the trip, he and his team, heavily staffed with local veterinarians and researchers, spent six hours south of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, and collected nearly 100 samples in an effort to combat viruses like MERS before they spread to the United States.
“The beauty of it is that you have this busy, huge capital with more than 1 million people,” he said. “Then you drive out for an hour and the paved roads stop and the only thing you see is animals and nomadic farmers.”
Richt focuses on tracking and identifying diseases in animals that can be transmitted to humans. Founded in 2010 through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases’ priority is to protect U.S. agriculture and public health from foreign and zoonotic diseases, like MERS, but also bird flu, swine flu and SARS. Obvious risks to human health aside, such diseases have major international economic impacts.
That’s why research like the Mongolian expedition is vital to containing new and easily communicable diseases, Richt said.
“If we study these diseases that are very costly and dangerous to our agricultural system and learn to control them in these countries, the risk of them coming to our shores is far less,” he said. “There are concerns that through travel, trade and even bio-terrorism, disease like MERS could spread.”
MERS crept up first in Saudi Arabia in 2012 before spreading to Jordan, Egypt, Oman and Qatar, as well as other Middle East countries. In humans, it causes upper respiratory factors like coughing and shortness of breath, along with fever, according to the World Health Organization. More than 2,000 people have been diagnosed with MERS, most in Saudi Arabia. Of those, about 35 percent have died because no vaccine or MERS-specific treatment exists yet.
The disease is most common in cultures where humans live in close proximity to camels, like the nomadic herders of the Mongolian steppe. Luckily, the disease wasn’t spotted in Mongolia during Richt’s study, he said. If present, the disease could devastate the country or leap to nearby countries with close ties to the U.S., like China.
In 2015, a traveler introduced MERS to South Korea, infecting several dozen people in a hospital, according to the World Health Organization. The BBC reported at least 36 died before the disease was contained.
Though Richt spent only a week in Mongolia this year, he has made countless other trips. The herders move around, but Richt said local guides made it easy to locate them across the vast steppe. He speaks limited Mongolian, so the team relied on a partnership with Mongolian scientists based in Ulaanbaatar.
“Only locals can gain their trust for us,” he said. “Without them, it would be much more complicated.”