The deadly coronavirus behind Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) has been isolated in a bat in Saudi Arabia, according to a report in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The virus was found in a the feces of an Egyptian tomb bat, or Taphozous perforatus, a creature known to roost in abandoned buildings.
MERS-CoV has sickened 135 people, 58 fatally, since its emergence in June 2012. Those statistics, current as of September 19 according to FluTrackers, exclude retrospectively positive cases from the first known MERS-CoV outbreak in Jordan.
All primary cases have been traced to the Arabian Peninsula.
Dr. Jonathan H. Epstein, a veterinarian with the EcoHealth Alliance, said that since these insect-eating bats do not normally bite people, infection likely occurs when victims are exposed to dried bat guano. It’s also probable that the virus spreads from bats to other animals before it reaches humans.
Research published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases suggested that the linking animal could be the dromedary camel (camels in Oman, Egypt and the Canary Islands possess antibodies to a similar virus). Tests on sheep, goats and cows are ongoing.
University of Nottingham virologist Jonathan Ball told the BBC, “We have long suspected that bats are the original source. Bats are a source of lots of human virus infections, like Ebola, henipahvirus, rabies and SARS.”
“Bats are unlikely to be the cause of continuing outbreaks. Humans and bats don’t interact very much. It’s much more likely that an intermediate animal is involved – and finding out what this animal is key if we are to eradicate this virus before it becomes a bigger problem,” continued Ball, “But there are still some crucial unknowns.”
The infected bat was discovered in an abandoned house on a date palm orchard in the small Saudi city of Bisha. The first known MERS-CoV victim was a local paint salesman whose Bisha warehouse was surrounded by a large garden with fruit trees and insects that attract bats. The victim, a 60-year-old man, got sick in mid-June and died two weeks later.
Most who succumbed to MERS-CoV have been elderly with underlying chronic conditions. Victim Number One was reputed to have had separate houses for his three wives and was building a fourth for a woman he planned to marry, a factoid ostensibly meant to imply he was in robust health. It was later revealed that he was suffering from pneumonia prior to succumbing to the virus.
Coronaviruses cause illness spanning from the common cold to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and they infect a wide range of animals. MERS-CoV does not seem easily contagious, but there have been instances wherein patient caretakers and close family members were infected.
In 2002 an outbreak of the SARS coronavirus killed over 800 people, originating in Kong and spreading to over 30 countries before mysteriously disappearing. Researchers are now investigating if MERS-CoV will be a “dead end” infection which can only spread from animal to person (think rabies) or will spread from person to person (think HIV).
The main reservoir for this virus and how exactly it infects people remains unclear.
Image of deadly bats from Shutterstock