Since scientists announced last week that they had tracked a dangerous new coronavirus to bats in Saudi Arabia, a debate has emerged among virologists as to whether there really is enough evidence to back up the claim.
In a paper published online by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a research team comprising veterinarians from EcoHealth Alliance, virologists from Columbia University and Saudi health officials said they had found a stretch of viral RNA in the feces of a bat that matched similar stretches of viral RNA found in humans infected with the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus, or MERS.
But the matching fragment was found in only one bat. And it was a tiny sample: from a genome composed of about 30,000 base pairs, building blocks of genetic material, the matching fragment was only 190 base pairs long.
Some scientists who publicly or privately aired their concerns about the strength of the finding nonetheless agreed that the virus probably was in the bat and would be found in others when more can be sampled. Similar viruses have been found in bats on several continents.
And all noted that, when a lethal new virus emerges, the pressure to publish even slivers of data is tremendous. Only 96 bats were initially tested, and the frozen samples accidentally were thawed en route to Columbia University.
Some professional jealousies also may be fueling the controversy. Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, whose team at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health did the lab work, regularly is described as a “microbe hunter” in articles lionizing him for his work in a variety of areas, including West Nile virus, dying honeybees and the 2011 medical thriller movie “Contagion.” And he can be sharp-tongued about his critics.
The first scientist to openly question the discovery was Vincent Racaniello, another virologist at Columbia; he has his own blog and podcast. He posited the theory that the fragment might have come from a mixed virus with pieces of the MERS virus in it, or even from something the bat ate.
Dr. Lipkin said that the latter idea was virtually impossible since Taphozous perforatus, also called the Egyptian tomb bat, eats insects, which are not known to become infected with coronaviruses.