The evolutionary origins of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus (MERS-CoV) are unknown, but a collaborative team including researchers from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health has found new evidence to support the hypothesis that the virus originated in bat populations.
[Photo: Dr. Vineet Menachery (left) and Dr. Ralph Baric]
MERS, a highly virulent respiratory virus, emerged in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Over the past five years, it has caused more than 1,900 human cases with nearly 700 deaths. Studies of the virus have suggested that MERS-CoV can be harbored in a number of animals, including camels and bats. Recent identification of several coronaviruses similar to MERS-CoV in multiple species of insect-eating bats bolstered this theory.
In the new findings co-authored by Gillings School researchers, investigators describe a MERS-like CoV identified in a Pipistrellus cf. hesperidus bat sampled in Uganda. This novel virus maintains strong similarity with the epidemic MERS-CoV strain, with the exception of a critical portion of the spike protein. The difference suggests that the new CoV (strain PREDICT/PDF-2180) is unlikely to pose a threat of animal-to-human transmission without further adaptation. The new strain, however, further supports the theory that bats are the evolutionary source of MERS-CoV.
The work, a collaboration between researchers at Columbia University, EcoHealth Alliance, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is part of the PREDICT project. Funded by USAID, PREDICT seeks to identify emerging pandemic threats. Led by researchers Dr. Ralph Baric, professor, Dr. Vineet Menachery, postdoctoral scholar, and Mr. Trever Scobey, laboratory technician – all in the Department of Epidemiology at the Gillings School – this study extends efforts to evaluate the pandemic threat posed by coronaviruses circulating in nature.