Deadly MERS Virus Discovered in Egyptian Tomb Bat in Saudi Arabia

Posted on August 22, 2013

Egyptian Tomb Bat in MERS outbreak study


The deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has been discovered in an Egyptian Tomb Bat in Saudi Arabia. Experts have been trying to track the source of the mysterious MERS outbreak since it was first discovered in September 2012. 70 of the nearly 100 cases have been in Saudi Arabia. The novel coronavirus has killed 47 people so far.

Over a six-week period during field expeditions in October 2012 and April 2013, the researchers collected more than 1,000 samples from seven bat species in regions where cases of MERS were identified. Analysis was performed using polymerase chain reaction and DNA sequencing. One fecal sample from an Egyptian Tomb Bat (Taphozous perforatus) collected within a few kilometers of the first known MERS victim's home contained sequences of a virus identical to those recovered from the victim.

W. Ian Lipkin, MD, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity and a co-author of the study, said in a statement, "There have been several reports of finding MERS-like viruses in animals. 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."

The researchers note that bats are the reservoirs of viruses that can cause human disease including rabies, Hendra, Nipah, Marburg, and SARS. Egyptian Tomb Bats eat insects so it is unlikely the virus is being transmitted through a bat bite. Ziad Memish, MD, Deputy Minister of Health, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and lead author of the study, says it is probably an intermediate host. Memish says, "Given that human-to-human transmission is inefficient, we speculate that an as-yet-to-be determined intermediate host plays a critical role in human disease."

Exposure to bat droppings, guano, is one possible vector in the spread of the virus from tomb bats to humans. Dr. Jonathan H. Epstein, a veterinarian with the EcoHealth Alliance who helped trap the bats, told the New York Times that people could inhale the virus through dried bat guano in a manner similar to the way people contract hantavirus from dried mouse droppings.

The new research was published here in the CDC journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases.

A virus similar to MERS was also discovered recently in dromedary camels.

Photo: Jonathan H. Epstein/EcoHealth Alliance