What is wrong with this paragraph from today’s New York Times that describes the origin of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus:
Health officials confirmed Wednesday that bats in Saudi Arabia were the source of the mysterious virus that has sickened 96 people in the Middle East, killing 47 of them.
Here is the science behind that statement, which has been published in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Samples (fecal, fecal swab, throat swab, blood) were collected from bats in an area of Saudi Arabia where human infections with MERS-CoV have been identified. Total nucleic acids were extracted and analyzed for the presence of coronavirus sequences by polymerase chain reaction. Coronavirus sequences were amplified from 220 of 732 fecal samples and 7 of 91 rectal swab samples or fecal pellets. One PCR product obtained from a single bat sample (fecal pellet of a T. perforatus bat captured in October 2012 in Bisha) had 100% nucleotide identity to a human MERS-CoV isolate.
A single PCR product 190 nucleotides in length from one bat was a perfect match with the genome sequence of a MERS-CoV isolate.
No infectious MERS-CoV has yet been isolated from this single bat. Therefore it is not yet possible to say that bats are the source of virus causing the MERS-CoV outbreak. As I have written previously, a virus is very different from a viral sequence.
It is certainly possible that MERS-CoV originated in a bat. Bats are known to harbor many viruses, and of course the SARS coronavirus originated in bats. But there is more than one explanation for the presence of this short viral sequence in bats. Perhaps the virus (or viral sequence) was obtained when the bat ingested a meal. Perhaps the 190 nucleotides are from a recombinant virus that is not MERS-CoV. I can think of other reasons why bats might not be the source of MERS-CoV.
For these reasons I believe that it is inaccurate for ‘health officials’ and the New York Times to confirm that bats are the source of MERS-CoV. Additional work is clearly needed to show that T. perforatus is the source of MERS-CoV, including isolation of infectious virus from bats and demonstrating infection of bats by the presence of antibodies to the virus. The work is in clearly progress; indeed the results might even be known, but they are not included in the Emerging Infectious Diseases article on which the NY Times piece was based.
Update 1: The term ‘frag-virus’ was proposed in 2008 to indicate viruses known only from sequence data. Although the term never caught on, the short article points out the problems that arise when genomic fragments are used to identify new viruses :
Although unintentional, these reports may mislead the readership of scientific journals and the general press. Having no distinction between preliminary genome-based evidence and conclusive proof by biological isolation and characterization of a replication-competent virus blurs the meaning of new virus.
Update 2: A phylogenetic analysis of the DNA fragment amplified from T. perforatus has been carried out. The author writes that “although this fragment means a very close relative of the human MERS-CoV is found in a bat geographically close to the first case, the fact it is identical in this short region doesn’t mean that these bats are the direct source of the human case.” I would add even more uncertainty because we have no evidence that the virus was replicating in this single bat.