Deadly Virus May Have Emerged a Year Earlier, Study Says

The new coronavirus that’s killed 38 people since September may have emerged almost a year earlier than the first known case and circulated unnoticed for that time, a study showed.

The genetic sequence of a virus taken from a 73-year-old patient who died in Munich in March, together with sequences from four other patients, suggests a common ancestor halfway through 2011, researchers at the University of Bonn Medical Center in Germany, wrote in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal today. The first known case was in Jordan in April 2012.

The finding provides another clue as researchers try to figure out where the virus came from and how it’s spreading. While most cases have been identified in Saudi Arabia, they’ve also been detected in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and the U.K., according to the World Health Organization.

“Genetic data are urgently needed to establish the spatial and temporal distribution of cases, estimate the number of independent human chains of transmission, and thus better assess the threat” the virus poses, researchers led by Christian Drosten wrote.

The virus now known as Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, has sickened at least 64 people worldwide since September, and killed 38. The Saudi health ministry reported three further cases and four deaths among previously-diagnosed people, in a statement yesterday.

Bat Infection

The virus appears most closely related to one taken from a bat in the Netherlands in 2008, Andrew Rambaut, a professor molecular evolution at the University of Edinburgh, wrote on his blog. The virus may have crossed from bats to a domesticated or agricultural animal, and from there spread into humans, Rambaut wrote.

The Munich patient owned camels and had taken care of a sick animal shortly before showing symptoms of disease, Drosten and colleagues wrote, citing the dead man’s relatives. No animal samples could be retrieved, they said.

Coronaviruses are a family of pathogens that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to SARS, which sickened more than 8,000 people and killed 774 in 2002 and 2003, according to the WHO. While the new virus is related to the one that causes SARS, it appears far less transmissible, the WHO has said.

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