A Saudi-US research team has found a partial match for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-coronavirus) in a sample taken from a bat in Saudi Arabia. The fragment of viral DNA was extracted from a fecal swab from an Egyptian tomb bat — the species’ proper name is Taphozous perforatus — in Al-Ahsa where a majority of the Kingdom’s 70 odd coronavirus cases were detected.
The bat is an insect eater, and is often found among fruit trees because the fruit attracts insects.
The discovery reported Wednesday in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal published by the US Centers for Disease Control, is considered an important development in the search for the origin of Mers, a deadly respiratory illness that is worrying health officials around the world.
But it’s likely that something else – perhaps another animal – is spreading the virus directly to humans, said Dr. Ziad Memish, Deputy Minister of Health and lead author of the report.
Since it was identified last September, almost 100 people have fallen ill, most of them in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. About half of them died. This the first time a match for the human virus — even a fragment of it — has been found in samples taken from an animal.
But while the finding adds further support for the widely held suspicion that the new coronavirus originated in bats, the fragment isn’t large enough to say definitely that the bat virus was identical to the MERS coronavirus, an expert said. If the scientists had been able to sequence the full genetic blueprint of the bat virus differences between it and the human virus might have been spotted, explained Andrew Rambaut of University of Edinburgh who has been following the MERS story.
The team composed of researchers from the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) in the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University, EcoHealth Alliance, and the Saudi Ministry of Health. Memish said bats have always been suspected to be the original source of the virus, but there are probably other players of the chain of transmission that haven’t yet been identified.
“There must be something in the middle,” Memish said during a talk on MERS in Washington, D.C., that was organized and webcast by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Health Security.
“Is it food? Is it (an)other animal reservoir? That’s something to be determined.”
To date there have been 97 confirmed cases of MERS and 46 of those infections have ended in death.