The novel coronavirus found in the Middle East earlier this year probably came to humans from bats, though whether it travelled through another species before infecting people is unclear, a new report suggests.
The scientists who first identified the new virus — which comes from the same family as SARS — reported Wednesday on the case that brought the virus to light, the fatal infection of a 60-year-old man from Saudi Arabia.
In their report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, they predict pipistrellus bats may be the source of the virus.
Senior author Ron Fouchier, the virologist whose laboratory first spotted that this was a never-before-seen coronavirus, said bats and coronaviruses have co-evolved over millenniums.
Because of that fact, one can generally predict which bat is host to which coronavirus, Fouchier said in an interview. Study of the virus cannot reveal if there was an animal go-between, though it is a possibility, he said.
"It's hard to say anything definitive, but humans do not come in contact with bats a whole lot. And so the chance that two humans get into contact with bats is even less likely, with the same species of bats carrying the same virus," said Fouchier, a senior scientist at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
"So it is most likely that those two humans either got it from a different animal species or another human."
To date only two infections with the new virus have been spotted. The first, the man from Saudi Arabia, occurred in June. The second was in a man from Qatar, who first sought medical assistance in early September. The Qatari man was sent by air ambulance to London, where he is still in hospital.
While Fouchier mentioned the possibility of spread from person to person, at this point the suspicion is that the men were probably infected by animals. Both are reported to have had contact with some animals, including sheep and camels in the case of the man from Qatar.
Public health authorities have been investigating whether friends and family of the cases or health-care workers who came in contact with them developed symptoms, but so far it appears that the virus has not spread from those two cases.
In fact, in the journal report the authors reveal that the microbiologist in Saudi Arabia who was trying to puzzle out the source of the man's infection has developed a test that can detect antibodies to the virus in blood samples.
Dr. Ali Mohamed Zaki, of Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital in Jeddah, tested 2,400 blood samples from people who came to the hospital for treatment from 2010 to 2012. None of them contained antibodies to the virus. Zaki is one of the authors of the New England Journal paper.
His data support the idea that this may be an animal virus that is occasionally spilling over into people, not a human virus that just hasn't been spotted before, Fouchier said.