Egyptian Tomb Bat Narrows Hunt for Source of Killer Lung Virus

An Egyptian tomb bat was found to harbor a virus genetically identical to the one that caused so-called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in at least 94 people, killing half of them, scientists at Columbia University said.

The bat’s feces tested positive for the virus, known as MERS coronavirus -- the first time researchers have been able to pinpoint a specific animal host for the new pneumonia-causing pathogen. The finding was published yesterday in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Researchers have been hunting for the natural reservoir of the respiratory virus for months. Knowing which species is responsible will inform strategies to control its spread. Previous efforts had narrowed the search to bats, though none had found an exact genetic match, said Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York, and a co-author of the study.

“This is 100 percent identical,” Lipkin said in a telephone interview. “If this is not the reservoir, it is certainly a reservoir for MERS coronavirus.”

The droppings from the bat, known scientifically as Taphozous perforatus, was collected a few kilometers from the home of the first known victim of MERS coronavirus in Saudi Arabia.

Lipkin said his group is surveying other animal species that might be acting as conduits of the virus from T. perforatus, whose body is the size of an iPhone, to humans. Viruses typically transmit from bats to humans via mammals that are either genetically closer or have more opportunities of exposure.

Civet Cats

In the case of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, 10 years ago, civet cats probably carried the virus from bats to humans. Lipkin will report work on camels, goats and sheep in the next few weeks, he said.

Researchers from Columbia and the Saudi Arabian health ministry collected more than 1,000 samples from seven bat species in regions where cases of MERS were identified in Bisha, Unaizah, and Riyadh over a six-week period during field expeditions in October and April, Columbia said in a statement on the study.

Since April 2012, 94 laboratory-confirmed human MERS cases have been reported to the World Health Organization, according to an Aug. 13 report. Of those, 47 were fatal.

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