A Novel Nasty (& the age of the Bat)

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Settling into a recent Vietnamese breakfast ritual of mine, which I’m swiftly becoming accustomed to, of ‘Pho’ and ‘Bahn My’ accompanied by the beast of an engine starter that is “cà phê sữa đá”, I open up my e-mails to some worrying news. A colleague at the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit – Jackie – had sent me a link to an online update by the BBC on Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (or MERS for short), a disease caused by a previously unseen coronavirus (prior to late 2012). Coronaviruses are the kind of viruses I’m studying here in Viet Nam. There has been yet another death at the hands of this virus, taking the total death toll of MERS-CoV to to 42. (The article linked is incorrect with their final tally)

This time the victim passed away in a UK hospital. Cases have been confirmed in at least 9 countries but it is believed, after molecular and epidemiological analysis, that this virus originated in the Middle East (as the name would suggest). The virus is particularly harmful to those with underlying health issues and people heading towards the “old age” bracket (or in it!), causing horrendous difficulty in breathing (respiratory illness) as well as fever, malaise and a nasty cough.

The symptoms are similar to SARS, which spawned in the human population in 2002 and took the lives of 775 people. As I mentioned in an earlier post, SARS was also caused by a coronavirus.

But where did it come from?!

We are far less certain about the actual source of the MERS virus. But here’s what we do know – the majority of emerging pathogens come from animals. Are camels the culprit? Or bats again? The popular theory behind the emergence of SARS is that bats such as Rhinolophus sinicus, which were found to harbour viruses with high similarity to the SARS virus, infected animals such as palm civets and racoon dogs. These animals were frequently being penned up in horrific conditions throughout live ‘wet’ markets in Southern China, enabling high frequency of animal and human contact and numerous opportunities for the virus to come into contact with humans. What happened next was the real game changer – the virus adapted to new hosts. US. However, to date we cannot 100% rule out the bats actually had (or have) the direct SARS virus and passed it directly to humans in some cases. It could be out there – we just may not have found it yet.

Maybe a similar story is behind the emergence of MERS-CoV. In fact – we know that two viruses previously identified in bats have the highest similarity to the human MERS-CoV. However, these were identified in Japanese bat populations, and little bat virus surveillance has been done in the Middle East.

It’s clear – we’re missing a tonne of links here. It is an immense challenge to piece it all together, but one we should take seriously if we are to avoid further cases of MERS-CoV infections and more animal to human crossover of infections in the future. It’s all work to prevent the next pandemic.

That’s why I love my project – hunting for these kind of viruses within bat populations of Viet Nam. It’s risky, real and relevant – and I’ll update you on my findings later!

Ciao for now.

mers cov

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