In response to the outbreak, Drs. Heinz Feldmann and Vincent Munster at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Mont., have begun studies of the coronavirus in Syrian hamsters and rhesus macaques. Their partners at Erasmus University in The Netherlands are conducting similar tests in ferrets and cynomolgus macaques.
The groups are coordinating their work to determine which species may be the most suitable to study as a model of human infection. The same four animal species are used to study other human respiratory diseases, most notably SARS, influenza and hantavirus.
The new coronavirus is closely related to coronaviruses isolated from bats, suggesting that these animals might be its natural carrier. RML’s virus ecology unit conducts research on viruses that originate from bats, such as Ebola and Nipah; this new coronavirus underscores the need for NIAID research on infectious disease ecology and natural carriers, or reservoirs, of infectious agents.
“The virus appears to cause severe lung and kidney damage,” said Feldmann, who in 2003 was among a group of scientists who tracked the spread of the SARS virus from its origin in southern China to a Hong Kong hotel, where it affected several guests.
“We want to mimic human infection in an animal model to understand how this novel coronavirus causes disease and whether there is a potential for transmission of the virus among humans,” he said.Meanwhile, ECDC's new Rapid Risk Assessment says "there is still no evidence of sustained person-to-person transmission of household settings"—which I take to mean after prolonged close contact.