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Dates sales take a big hit over MERS rumors

Rumors about Saudi dates having been infected with the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) has led to a slump in sales of the commodity in some areas.
Many expatriates and Saudis are no longer eating the fruit because they fear contracting the disease. Many news reports have been published on the Internet to warn people they should only eat dates if they wash them well. The virus has killed a number of people in the Kingdom.
The rumors started circulating recently because of an incorrect understanding of a study published recently by a team of researchers that found the virus in bats in "Europe and beyond." Without reading the study carefully, people in the Middle East thought bats living in palm trees in this region were infecting dates.
An author of the study, Dr. Christian Drosten, a coronavirus expert and director of the Institute of Virology at the University of Bonn Medical Centre in Germany, said that while bats with the virus are likely found in many parts of the world, it was not certain that bats in the Middle East spread the virus.
He said bats in the Middle East have to be tested first to determine if they have the virus. The study, published by the International Society for Infectious Diseases, makes no mention of dates being infected.
The study also has no answer to why the virus has been found largely in Saudi Arabia.
People are concerned because Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), that killed many people in the past, and is a relative of MERS, was spread through bat urine and feces to other animals and then humans.
There has been no confirmation yet from any official body in the Kingdom or elsewhere that bats are responsible for the spread of MERS in Saudi Arabia.
Date traders here say sales are down.
Abu Ali, who sells dates at a vegetable souk, said: "We've noticed that demand for dates is lower this year. For example, we only receive customers who are elderly and almost only Saudis," he said.
He said that he usually buys 40 kg of dates from Al-Ahsa, but this year he bought only 20 kg. "Even the 20 kg was too much. I failed to sell half of them," he said.
Mohammed Ali, a Yemeni salesman at a big market, said he also failed to sell his dates. He said he does not know what was published about coronavirus and bought dates as usual, even though prices had jumped 15 percent.
"After I got the dates, I failed to sell most of it. I tried to sell the dates among relatives and uneducated people because they don’t know about the coronavirus," he said.
Many people in Jordan and Egypt have received SMSs warning them about eating Saudi dates.
Rama Abu Hassan, a Jordanian who performs Umrah every five years, said she decided not to buy Saudi dates after receiving an SMS on her mobile.
"Buying dates is one of the main things that we usually do when we visit the Kingdom, but this year I was worried and decided not to buy dates. Even my neighbors and relatives in Jordan bought Jordanian dates and avoided Saudi dates," she said.

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