Egyptian tomb bats may be the cause of the new deadly virus
that's claimed the lives of 47 people worldwide, scientists have reported.
The Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a coronavirus similar to SARS, first emerged in Saudi Arabia last year and has been spreading slowly ever since. It begins with a fever and mild cough, but progresses rapidly to pneumonia.
Researchers have long suspected that some sort of animal species was responsible for MERS and now they've identified the link. A fecal sample from an Egyptian tomb bat revealed traces of the virus and, more importantly, the infected bat was found close to where the first case of MERS was reported.
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"There have been several reports of finding MERS-like viruses in animals," Dr. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University told NBC News.
"None were a genetic match. In this case we have a virus in an animal that is identical in sequence to the virus found in the first human case. Importantly, it’s coming from the vicinity of that first case."
Identifying the carrier of the virus is a big breakthrough, but Dr. Ziad Memish, Saudi Arabia's deputy health minister, doubts that the animals directly affected humans.
"I think we suspected from day one… this had something to do with bats," Memish told a gathering of health experts hosted by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Health Security in Washington this week. "There must be something in the middle. Is it food? Is it something else? We think bats are the source but we need an intermediate host. We have not been able to document the relationship between the patients and the bats."
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Lipkin's team will continue searching for MERS links in other animals while monitoring the tomb bat species.
Earlier this month, a European team of researchers claimed that they had found antibodies to a MERS-like virus in camels from Oman, but, strangely, no MERS cases have been reported in that country.
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