A bat has been linked to the mysterious and at times fatal Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus plaguing the Middle East, according to a new study.
Researchers said they detected a 100 percent genetic match in an insect-eating bat close to the home of the first known victim of the disease in Saudi Arabia.
MERS has killed 47 people worldwide, 39 of them in Saudi Arabia.
“There have been several reports of finding MERS-like viruses in animals. None were a genetic match,” said Ian Lipkin, a co-author of the study and head of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity.
“In this case, we have a virus in an animal that is identical in sequence to the virus found in the first human case,” he said in a statement.
“Importantly, it’s coming from the vicinity of that first case,” he added.
The findings of the study, which also involved researchers from the EcoHealth Alliance and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health, were published online late on Wednesday in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
MERS is considered a cousin of the SARS virus that erupted in Asia in 2003.
Like SARS, it is thought to have jumped from animals to humans, and shares the former’s flu-like symptoms — but differs by causing kidney failure.
Between October last year and April, researchers collected more than 1,000 samples from seven bat species in regions of Saudi Arabia where MERS cases were identified.
After a series of analyses, a fecal sample taken from an Egyptian Tom Bat collected within several kilometers of the home of the first known MERS victim “contained sequences of a virus identical to those recovered” from that person.
However, “there is no evidence of direct exposure to bats in the majority of human cases of MERS,” said Saudi Arabian Deputy Minister of Health Ziad Memish, the study’s lead author.
“Given that human-to-human transmission is inefficient, we speculate that an as-yet-to-be determined intermediate host plays a critical role in human disease,” he said.