Bats can carry MERS

DNA of deadly respiratory virus found in Saudi Arabian mammal

The virus that causes a deadly new respiratory disease known as Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, has been found in a bat in Saudi Arabia. The finding suggests that animals may transfer the virus to humans.

The disease was first diagnosed in a Saudi Arabian man last September. Since then, 99 people have gotten sick from the virus and 48 of them died. Scientists know that the coronavirus that causes the disease is related to the one that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and to viruses carried by bats. But they haven’t figured out how the virus got into humans. None of the sick people had any known contact with bats.

Recently, however, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health worked with researchers from Columbia University and EcoHealth Alliance to catch bats that live near the home and business of the first man diagnosed with MERS. The team took blood samples, small pieces of bats’ wings, and throat and rectal swabs from the animals. They also collected and tested bat feces for signs of the MERS virus DNA.

The feces from one Egyptian tomb bat, Taphozous perforatus, contained a virus that perfectly matched the MERS virus that killed the first patient, the researchers report August 21 in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Previously, camels had been implicated in spreading MERS to humans, but no actual evidence of the virus was found in the animals. Instead, the camels had antibodies against MERS, indicating they had been exposed to the virus.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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