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Aug 24, 2013

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Scientists say they are one step closer to understanding the origins of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), the deadly viral disease that has been spreading in the Middle East for more than a year. They have found a small fragment of the virus’s genome in an Egyptian tomb bat from Saudi Arabia, suggesting that these bats are a source of the virus—although another animal species may act as the bridge to humans.

Since it was first discovered in 2012, MERS has sickened 97 people and killed 47, most of them in Saudi Arabia. The virus has sometimes been transmitted from one patient to the next, but in most cases the source of infection remains unclear. Epidemiologists have speculated that bats, which are host to several related viruses, could be a reservoir. Scientists just reported finding a coronavirus closely resembling MERS in the feces of a South African bat.

Columbia University virologist Ian Lipkin, whose team has been collaborating with Saudi Deputy Minister of Health Ziad Memish, is one of the few scientists who have had access to animal samples from the region where MERS occurs. In October 2012, Lipkin and other researchers went to the home of the first known MERS patient in Saudi Arabia, a man who died in June 2012 in Bisha, in the country’s southwest. They collected blood and tissue samples and throat and rectal swabs from 96 bats captured in an abandoned date palm orchard less than 12 kilometers from the man’s home and close to the hardware store where he worked.

Sequencing the nucleic acids isolated from the samples yielded a clue: The fecal pellet of the insect-eating Egyptian tomb bat (Taphozous perforatus) contained a piece of viral RNA identical to that of the virus isolated from the patient in Bisha, the scientists reported online in Emerging Infectious Diseases yesterday.

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