Written by Rachael Weissman, CNN
First there was Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus, then Zaire Fever, and the Norwegian Mediterranean Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Later this year, scientists predict there will be another, even more mysterious virus — also known as (possibly) Middle East Trigonevalvirus (METSV) or MERS-CoV.
A gene from the new coronavirus was detected in a mouse for the first time, according to a study published by scientists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The genome of the virus was discovered in three samples of nonhuman primates in Saudi Arabia, the researchers wrote in the March issue of Cell Host & Microbe.
“This finding confirms our initial hypothesis that the virus can cause disease in animals and it was exciting that there was a human component to this,” said Jonathan Ross, an associate professor of molecular virology at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the study’s authors.
In a study last year, Dr. Gerald Gillanders, a virologist at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, a co-author of the latest study, pointed out that this coronavirus shares similarities with viruses that caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in Saudi Arabia and the current outbreak of Middle East Network infections in Egypt.
These viruses infect different respiratory tissues, sometimes causing respiratory symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, coughing, fever and runny nose. But in animals like mice, they also kill healthy tissue and prevent healthy tissue from growing, which makes people vulnerable.
“The concern here is that viruses that are able to cause disease in animals can actually cause disease in humans. In many cases, these infections aren’t life-threatening. They aren’t drug-resistant, they aren’t highly transmissible and they don’t spread easily. But in certain populations, they can cause severe illness or death,” Ross said.
“At this time, the MERS coronavirus has been shown to cause only severe illness in people. If these viruses evolve into drug-resistant strains, they could become very deadly.”
In September, the WHO reported that they believe the virus may be of some concern for travelers in the Middle East, who tend to travel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. However, the WHO reported at the time that “so far, there has been no confirmed transmission among humans”.
More than 100 cases of coronavirus have been reported around the world, including 55 reported so far in Saudi Arabia. The first recorded outbreak occurred in 2013 in the Arabian Peninsula. But the virus has only been attributed to live animals once, in humans.