MERS Infection Source: Bats With Deadly Virus In Saudi Arabia

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Generally unheard of in virology, the Egyptian tomb bat matched 100 percent to the MERS virus. Image by the CDC.

Generally unheard of in virology, an Egyptian tomb bat’s virus matched 100 percent to the MERS virus killing people in the Mideast. Image by the CDC.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a new coronavirus that was first detected in April 2012.

This new virus has never been found in humans before and has caused serious disease, with more than half of all cases ending in fatalities.

Until recently, scientists could not find the source of the infection – but now, a new study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Disease Journal reports that the source of the infection is a bat.

MERS Infection Has Spread

There have been 90 reported cases worldwide, 70 of which took place in Saudi Arabia. Those who have contracted the virus have developed severe respiratory illness that includes: difficulty breathing, fever, and cough.

The mortality rate for MERS is 65 percent, making this a very deadly illness. There have been a few cases of human-to-human transmission, but it has only occurred within close contact, such as patients sharing a room, healthcare workers, and family members.

MERS: Where’s It Coming From?

Researchers identified taphozous perforatus, or the Egyptian tomb bat, as the source of the infection, and found the bat in an abandoned house located in a date palm orchard in Bisha, a small city in Saudi Arabia. The researchers gathered samples there because the first case of MERS occurred in a  man who worked in a nearby paint warehouse. The warehouse had a large garden with fruit trees that attracted many bats. The 60 year-old worker contracted the virus and died two weeks later – he also had four pet camels that have been sampled and tested with results still to come.

There were 96 bats tested, representing seven different species; only one bat out of 96 was a perfect 100 percent match for the virus. However, questions still remain, as this bat is of the insect-eating species that rarely bites humans: How did the virus jump from the bat to the humans? Researchers reported some possibilities including, bat drool on fruit and the possibility of another animal that got the virus from the bat and then gave it to humans. Researchers are also wondering if the bats are actually the carriers of MERS because of the following information:

  • The virus was found in the bat’s guano or excrement, which means that the bat could have eaten an insect that had the MERS infection and when passed through the bat’s waste, it tested positive for the virus. 
  • The samples which were collected from the bats and then frozen for shipment weren’t in the best shape when they arrived at the lab for testing. According to researchers the package was opened at customs and sat at room temperature for 48 hours until it arrived at Columbia University. This is one possibility as to why the researchers only found a small amount of the virus’s genome.

Despite the questions that still remain, researchers are excited to have this information as it does give some answers to questions that have needed to be answered. Testing on sheep, goats, cows, and camels are also underway and should be completed soon, reported Dr. Ian Lipkin, head of the Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity.

Researchers Discover Infected Bats: What’s the Next Step?

Researchers have known for many months that bats in East Europe and Africa carry viruses similar to the MERS virus, but this is the first time that the virus has been found in Middle Eastern bats.  Camels in Oman (south east of Saudi Arabia) have been tested and showed antibodies to the MERS virus. The puzzle pieces are slowly coming together and hopefully soon we will know for sure the source of the infection – and how to prevent this virus from spreading.

Resources:

Memish, Z., Mishra,N., Lipkin, I. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus in Bats, Saudi Arabia. Emerging Infectious Disease. (2013).  Accessed August 22, 2013.

Doucleff, Mechaleen. Deadly Middle East Coronavirus Found in an Egyptian Tomb Bat. (2013).  National Public Radio. Accessed August 22, 2013.

McNeil Jr., Donald.  Mystery Virus That’s Killed 47 Is Tied to Bats in Saudi Arabia. (2013). NY Times. Accessed August 22, 2013.

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