Health authorities in Saudi Arabia have revealed they have found a camel that has tested positive for the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, virus.

The camel was owned by a Saudi man who came down with the disease.

The animal tested positive using a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR test, which looks for small bits of the DNA from the virus in specimens such as mucus or saliva.

Ziad Memish, the Saudi deputy minister of health, says additional work is being done to chart the genetic sequence of the virus, which will then be compared to MERS viruses that have infected people.

If the finding is confirmed, it will mark the first time the MERS coronavirus has been found in an animal.

The new virus, which can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia, emerged last year in Saudi Arabia and has spread from the Persian Gulf to France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Britain. Since September 2012, there had been about 130 laboratory-confirmed cases. About 45 per cent of those who have contracted the virus have died, according to the World Health Organization.

Human case prompted investigation

Previous studies have found that camels in various parts of the Middle East carry antibodies that react to the MERS virus, suggesting the animals were previously infected with MERS or a MERS-like virus.

And a study on which Memish was an author reported finding a segment of viral RNA in feces from an Egyptian tomb bat that was identical to the corresponding section of the MERS virus. But the fragment was so small other experts said it was impossible to say if the full virus would have been identical as well.

Memish said in an email that the camel was tested as part of an investigation into a human case of MERS. The case, announced last week, was a 43-year-old man from Jeddah who was reported to be in an intensive care unit in hospital.

"In this particular case, there was a history of contact with sick animals that the patient owned," he says, adding that testing on other animals belonging to the man continues.

Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who led the first study that found MERS antibodies in camels, says the finding is an interesting development in the effort to puzzle out the source of the MERS virus.

But it will be important to see the full genetic sequence, which can be generated within about a day, says Koopmans, chief of virology at the National Institute of Public Health for the Netherlands.