Britain's Health Protection Agency has published an early genetic sequence of the new respiratory virus related to SARS that shows it is most closely linked to bat viruses, and scientists say camels, sheep or goats might end up being implicated too.
So far, officials have only identified two confirmed cases and say the virus isn't as infectious as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed hundreds of people, mostly in Asia, in a 2003 global outbreak.
In Geneva, World Health Organization spokesman Glenn Thomas told reporters Friday that so far the signs are that the virus is "not easily transmitted from person to person" — but analyses are ongoing. The agency said it's too early to tell how big a threat the new virus will be since it is unknown how exactly it spreads and whether it will evolve into a more dangerous form.
Global health officials suspect two victims from the Middle East may have caught it from animals.
"It's a logical possibility to consider any animals present in the region in large numbers," said Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Biologists now need to go into the area and take samples from any animals they can get their hands on, including camels and goats," he said.
Baric said it was crucial to find out how widespread the virus is in animals and what kind of contact might be risky for people.
Baric suggested bats might be spreading the virus directly to humans since the two confirmed infections happened months apart. "If there was an established transmission pattern from other animals, we probably would have seen a lot more cases," he said.