Virus Hunters Are Testing Bats, Camels, Goats And Cats to Find a Deadly Illness’ Origin

Bats have been pinpointed as the most likely culprits behind MERS, though camels are a close second

A colony of bats. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

In April 2012, the first cases of a novel coronavirus called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) emerged in the Jordan. The disease has only caused 77 known infections, but more than half of them have resulted in fatalities. Saudi Arabia has suffered the highest number of incidences, and the disease has also been carried by plane to a handful of countries in Europe. Virus hunters are now searching for the source of the pathogen, which, like many other diseases, likely originated in an animal. The New York Times reports:

Finding out where in the environment the disease is coming from might make it possible to tell people how to avoid it.

Bats are the leading suspect, because they are a reservoir of SARS and carry other coronaviruses with genetic similarities to the MERS virus. Bats could be transmitting the disease directly to people, or they might be spreading it to some other animal that then infects humans.

Bats have been pinpointed as the most likely culprits behind other zoonotic diseases, including deadly ailments such as the hemorrhagic fevers, Marburg and Ebola, and viruses such as Nipah and Hendra. Researchers have set up traps in abandoned buildings in Saudi Arabia where bats roost. In Saudi Arabia, the researchers snag the bats in nets, collect samples to test them for the virus, and then let them go, unharmed. The Times:

It takes about 15 minutes to process a bat — to weigh and measure it, swab it for saliva and feces samples, and collect some blood and a tiny plug of skin from a wing for DNA testing to confirm its species. The specimens were then frozen and sent to the laboratory of Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a leading expert on viruses at Columbia.

Bats are not the only animals under suspicion, however.

The team has also tested camels, goats, sheep and cats, which might act as intermediate hosts, picking up the virus from bats and then infecting people. One reason for suspecting camels is that a MERS patient from the United Arab Emirates had been around a sick camel shortly before falling ill. But that animal was not tested.

In the Middle East, camel racing is a popular spectator sport. Like horse racing in the West, camel racing attracts large crowds, so coming into contact with an infected camel is not as far-fetched a scenario as it may seem.

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