Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus in Bats, Saudi Arabia

Ziad A. Memish; Nischay Mishra, Kevin J. Olival; Shamsudeen F. Fagbo; Vishal Kapoor; Jonathan H. Epstein; Rafat AlHakeem; Abdulkareem Durosinloun; Mushabab Al Asmari; Ariful Islam; Amit Kapoor; Thomas Briese; Peter Daszak; Abdullah A. Al Rabeeah; W. Ian Lipkin


Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2013;19(11):1819-1823. 

In This Article


A wide range of CoV species are circulating among bats in Saudi Arabia. Although the prevalence of CoVs was high (≈28% of fecal samples), MERS CoV was found in only 1 bat. A 3.5% MERS CoV infection rate (n = 29; 95% CI 0–20%) in T. perforatus bats is low compared with that for severe acute respiratory syndrome–like CoV in rhinolophid bats in China (10%–12.5%) but consistent with CoV prevalence among bats in Mexico.[4] Furthermore, the sensitivity for viral nucleic acid detection in samples collected in October 2012 was probably reduced because of failure in cold chain transport. Whereas 219 (32%) of 675 of fecal pellets collected in April revealed a CoV sequence by PCR, only 8 (5%) of 148 of rectal swab samples or fecal pellets collected in October were positive by the same assays. We were unable to recover additional sequences beyond the 190-nt RdRp fragment represented in Figure 2 but are confident in the fidelity of the finding. First, although RdRp is a conserved portion of the CoV genome, there is no precedent for 100% identity of a bat sequence with a human MERS CoV sequence. Second, when this work began we did not have cultured MERS CoV, human MERS samples, or MERS CoV cDNA in the laboratory at Columbia University where samples were removed directly from the tubes in which they were collected in the field for nucleic acid extraction, PCR, and sequence analysis. Third, the only MERS-positive signal was obtained in PCR analysis of the T. perforatus bat captured in Bisha near the home and workplace of the MERS index case-patient used to generate the human β-CoV 2c EMC/2012 sequence.

Bats are reservoirs of several viruses that can cause human disease, including rabies, Hendra, Nipah, Marburg, severe acute respiratory syndrome CoV, and probably Ebola viruses.[11–14] Cross-species transmission from bats to humans can be direct, through contact with infected bats or their excreta, or facilitated by intermediate hosts.[15] Bat CoVs are typically host specific; however, MERS-related CoVs have reportedly been found in many bat families, including Vespertillionidae, Molosidae, Nyteridae, and now Emballonuridae (sheath-tailed bats) in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. We sampled only a small sample of bats in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, given the rarity of MERS CoV sequences detected by our survey and the broad distribution of MERS cases throughout the Middle East, we speculate that there are probably other hosts. Future work should investigate additional bat and other wildlife species and domestic animals for CoV infection and potential linkage to human disease.

Dr Memish is deputy minister for public health, director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Mass Gathering Medicine in the Ministry of Health, and professor in the College of Medicine of Alfaisal University in Riyadh. His research interests include emerging infectious diseases, infection control, and preventive medicine.