A 100% genetic match for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has been discovered in an insect-eating bat in close proximity to the first known case of the disease in Saudi Arabia. The discovery points to the likely animal origin for the disease, although researchers say that an intermediary animal is likely also involved. Led by a team of investigators from the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, EcoHealth Alliance, and the Ministry of Health of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the study is the first to search for an animal reservoir for MERS in Saudi Arabia, and the first to identify such a reservoir by finding a genetic match in an animal. The results appear online in the November 2013 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "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," says W. Ian Lipkin, M.D., director of the Center for Infection and Immunity and a co-author of the study. MERS was first described in September 2012 and continues to spread. Close to 100 cases have been reported worldwide, 70 of them from Saudi Arabia. The causative agent, a new type of coronavirus, has been determined; however, the origin of the virus has been unknown until now. 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 in Bisha, Unaizah, and Riyadh.
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