MERS Virus: Bat Carries 100 Percent Match For Deadly New Disease

The MERS virus found in a bat is a 100 percent match to the virus from the first human case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. That's the report from the CDC's Emerging Infectious Disease journal, which published the statement online Wednesday.

As a result, the CDC researchers believe that bats probably play a role in people getting the disease.

MERS, also known as MERS-CoV, is a coronavirus. However, it isn't the same coronavirus that caused the deadly 2003 SARS epidemic. Both viruses are similar to coronaviruses found in bats, which may provide some clue to the emerging diseases.

MERS was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It's scary because it has a high death rate. Of the 96 victims known to the CDC, 47 have died. That's almost half.

Even though it doesn't spread easily, the CDC said they're concerned because MERS does spread from person-to-person.

According to the Emerging Disease report, the team located the family home of the first victim. The family didn't remember seeing bats. But the team quickly discovered that bats roosted nearby and would fly in the garden behind his home at twilight.

They tested the bats and found a number of coronaviruses. However, only one bat was found carrying the MERS virus -- and that's one of the bats that was captured near the home of that original patient. The bat belonged to the species Taphozous perforatus, commonly known as the Egyptian tomb bat.

So what does it all mean? How did the bat infect the patient? Or was there a direct link between the bat and the MERS virus infection at all?

Right now, it isn't entirely clear.

The researchers said they held off on publishing, even though they actually found the virus match in December. They were hoping to find a stronger chain of evidence between the bat and the resulting human infection.

However, they haven't yet been able to. Columbia University virologist Ian Lipkin told Science:

"There have been so many cases of MERS described in the Middle East where we cannot make a direct link with bats. So there is likely to be an intermediate host."

The new MERS virus and bat connection is just one step along the path to understanding this disease.

[bat photo credit: Furryscaly via photopin cc]