New Evidence Points to Bat Species as Reservoir for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS CoV)

NEW YORK – August 21, 2013

EcoHealth Alliance Scientists and Collaborators Uncover MERS CoV in Suspected Wildlife Reservoir 

EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that focuses on local conservation and global health issues, and the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health announced the first evidence of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS CoV) found in a bat species in Saudi Arabia.  In October 2012, EcoHealth Alliance scientists were on the ground in Saudi Arabia in collaboration with the Center for Infection and Immunity by request of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health to investigate an unknown virus outbreak.  Drs. Jonathan Epstein and Kevin Olival began an active investigation into the source of the virus in attempts to uncover the wildlife reservoir and to understand the dynamics of the virus’s transmission to people. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a virus that causes severe acute respiratory illness including fever, cough, breathing problems, and death in nearly 50 percent of the 96 reported cases according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In 2003, EcoHealth Alliance scientists worked to unravel the mysteries of the SARS outbreak in China and discovered that a bat species was the reservoir for that virus when it was previously thought a civet was the wildlife host,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance.  “Now we are facing a similar situation in the Middle East where some suggest camels are the host species but that is still unclear – we’ve clearly found the virus in a common bat species that was tested in the vicinity of the first index case.”  Bats may play a significant role in viral transmission and the contact with humans may be indirect, since it is possible another animal vector is involved along the transmission route.

“While it may not have been unexpected that MERS comes from bats, given its genetic relationship to SARS, this is only the second instance that we know of where a bat coronavirus has caused disease in people.  It suggests that this diverse group of viruses is an important one to watch.  And now that we know which species of bat carries it, we can focus on understanding how it may have made the jump into people,” said Dr. Jonathan Epstein, Associate Vice President at EcoHealth Alliance.  Samples were taken from 96 bats from seven different species and sent to the lab at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health where colleagues conducted analyses and sequencing. “These findings are only the tip of the iceberg, and further investigations are required including the need to test a larger base of samples from bats, other wildlife, and domesticated animals to better understand the transmission of MERS Coronavirus,” stated Dr. Kevin Olival, Senior Research Scientists at EcoHealth Alliance.

Since September 2012, the MERS virus has been found in the following countries including Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.  There have been no cases reported in the United States.  Support for the research was provided by NIAID, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) PREDICT Project and DTRA.

The research has been published today by Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About EcoHealth Alliance
Building on over 40 years of groundbreaking science, EcoHealth Alliance is a global, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and safeguarding human health from the emergence of disease. The organization develops ways to combat the effects of damaged ecosystems on human and wildlife health.  Using environmental and health data covering the past 60 years, EcoHealth Alliance scientists created the first-ever, global disease hotspots map that identified at-risk regions, to help predict and prevent the next pandemic crisis. That work is the foundation of EcoHealth Alliance’s rigorous, science-based approach, focused at the intersection of the environment, health, and capacity building.  Working in the U.S. and more than 20 countries worldwide, EcoHealth Alliance’s strength is founded on innovations in research, training, global partnerships, and policy initiatives.  For more information, please visit


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