Animal Origins of the Deadly Middle Eastern Disease: A parallel to SARS

We’ve all had that annoying sore throat and cough which we often ignore thinking it’s only a cold. But, what if it’s the sign of something more ominous than just a cold or flu? What if it’s an infection by an unknown, killer virus – a coronavirus?

That was the scenario in 2003, when around 8000 people worldwide were sickened by SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) – the first frightening global epidemic of the 21st century – that killed 10 percent of those infected. SARS was caused by a newly discovered coronavirus, the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV).

Coronaviruses, named after their crown-like spikes from their surface, are viruses that can infect both humans and animals. In humans, ­they usually cause upper respiratory tract illnesses, and account for 20 percent of viruses causing the common cold. Until 2003, there were only two coronaviruses known to infect humans.

During the SARS epidemic, unprecedented panic and fear gripped the public, health workers, and travelers alike.  Almost everyone in Hong Kong donned face masks, which became a household necessity. Most people in Asia were, in some way or another, affected by SARS, and the thought of another SARS-like disease would spark nightmares among many of us, particularly in Asia.

Now, a decade after the SARS outbreak, the threat of another potentially deadly epidemic is looming – this time coming from the Middle East. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS first emerged in September 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Coincidentally, MERS is also caused by a coronavirus never seen before in humans. The virus, referred to as MERS-CoV – and resembles SARS-CoV1,2 – was discovered by Dutch virologists.

As of 30 September 2013, there have been a total of 130 cases of MERS, mostly in Saudi Arabia, but a few cases as far away as the UK, of which 58 died. Scientists and healthcare workers are concerned as the disease is fatal in almost half of those infected.

Initial symptoms of SARS were flu-like and seemingly innocuous. But later they got more threatening as people developed pneumonia. SARS spread from person-to-person through close contact with infected individuals and through droplets emitted from the cough of those infected. MERS also presents symptoms similar to those of SARS; but one rather menacing difference is that many MERS patients develop kidney failure.

Both viruses originate from animals; the deadly MERS virus is traced to bats that were also found to be to the culprits of SARS. But, more animals are implicated in this intricate trail from bats to humans.

 Origins of SARS

Initially, civets (cat-like animals), considered a delicacy in China, were widely believed to be the source of SARS. This led to the mass-culling of thousands of civets. In fact, some of the early cases were restaurant workers who served exotic food; these restaurants kept caged civets that ended up being served to customers.3 However, scientists later learned that no wild civets or farm civets were infected; only civets that were found in live-animal markets in southern China were infected with SARS.4

Civet in cage Image Source: Wikipedia

Civet in cage
Image Source: Wikipedia

So how did those civets get SARS? The focus turned to bats as they were, along with civets and many other animals, kept in cages close to each other in crowded live-animal markets in southern China. They were, like civets, sold for consumption as their meat is eaten in some parts of China. Eventually, in 2005, the mystery was solved as SARS was traced to Chinese horseshoe bats in the wild areas of southern China, from research led by Prof. KY Yuen at the University of Hong Kong.5 At the same time, another independent study by a different group also found bats as natural reservoirs of SARS-CoV.6

Scientists then learned that civets were only intermediate hosts of SARS-CoV, meaning that they caught the virus and spread it to humans. The most widely accepted scenario is that bats had infected civets with SARS in the animal markets, and these civets then transmitted the virus to people.

This finding triggered an intense hunt for coronaviruses in bats, and since then scientists have discovered many bat coronaviruses. Prior to SARS, the existence of coronaviruses in bats was largely unexplored. But the unearthing of other viruses in bats was not alarming to scientists – bats are notorious for harboring many viruses causing diseases such as Nipah, Hendra, Rabies and Ebola, without overtly displaying any symptoms.

Origins of MERS   

Many questions remain unanswered about MERS-CoV: what are the origins of this virus, how did humans get infected with MERS, and what can we do to prevent infection. The finding of the novel coronavirus prompted several researchers around the world who were previously involved in SARS-related studies to once again collaborate in their quest for the origins of this virus.

The obvious suspects were bats. Upon closer examination of the virus’s genetic code, indeed, its closest relatives are two coronaviruses isolated from bats in Hong Kong, both of which were discovered by a team led by Prof. Yuen, who was earlier involved in linking bats to SARS.7 The coronaviruses are found in Lesser bamboo bat and Japanese Pipistrelle, which are prevalent in Southeast Asia. Interestingly, bats belonging to the genus Pipistrelle are also reportedly found in Saudi Arabia.

Japanese Pipistrelle Bat Image Source: Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, HKSAR

Japanese Pipistrelle Bat
Image Source: Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, HKSAR

To further support the view that bats are the hosts of MERS, a separate group of researchers isolated MERS-related coronaviruses from European Pipistrelle bats and Nycteris bats from Ghana.8 Subsequently, another study identified a new coronavirus from the feces of a bat in South Africa that is genetically closer to MERS-CoV than all previous Pipistrelle coronaviruses reported.9

Recently, a six-month long study on bats in Saudi Arabia carried out by the an international team of scientists, reported MERS-CoV in an Egyptian tomb bat that is identical in genetic sequence to the virus isolated from the first infected patient.10 Notably, this bat was found only a few kilometers from the patient’s home. This was the first study so far to find an exact match of MERS-CoV in bats, and although only one bat out of more than 90 was a perfect match, it provides strong evidence of bats as the virus’s reservoir.

Scientists are investigating the prospect that other animals may have caught the virus from bats and transmitted it to humans, like civets in the case of SARS. This is because sometimes viruses require the body of another mammal for them to change or mutate enough to jump into and infect humans. Also, humans are usually not in such close contact with bats than with other mammals. In fact, many of the cases of MERS had no known contact with bats before falling sick.

Prof. Yuen suggested that there is a chance that the ancestor of MERS-CoV is in bats and may jump into intermediate hosts like camels, goats or horses. It can then evolve into another immediate ancestor-virus that may further jump into humans giving rise to MERS-CoV. Scientists are still testing camels, goats, and sheep for MERS-CoV to decipher the transmission path of the virus.

To make things even more interesting and complicated, a latest­­ study has found compelling evidence that the most likely suspects in our MERS mystery are camels. In this study, Prof Koopman from the Netherlands, along with an international team of scientists, collected blood samples from various livestock animals including cows, sheep, goats, and dromedary or one-humped camels from different countries.11 They tested the sera (clear yellow liquid called blood plasma minus any clotting factors) samples for the presence of antibodies against MERS-CoV spike protein on the surface of the virus. The results were astonishing – all 50 of the camels tested that originated from Oman were positive, indicating previous exposure to the MERS-CoV.

Dromedary camel  Image Source: Wikipedia

Dromedary camel
Image Source: Wikipedia

Camels are a source of meat and milk in some Middle Eastern countries. They are also used to transport goods and for racing.

To unravel the origins, it is crucial to test camels in Saudi Arabia, the center of the outbreak. But, even if they are also found to contain antibodies to MERS, that may not explain how patients got infected – most had no earlier contact with camels. Could another animal be involved? We need to determine whether patients had contact with any animals or animal-derived products before falling ill.

How then did MERS-CoV transmit from animals to humans? Possible routes could be through the feces of animals or respiratory droplets produced by coughing, assuming that animals also get sick upon infection. Perhaps camels came into close contact with bat feces (guano)?

Causes of emerging diseases

Outbreaks of novel diseases are becoming increasingly frequent. In fact, over 70% of emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals. Why are we seeing this rise in novel diseases from animals? “Human population growth, density and intrusion into wild life habitats” along with “increasing concentration of animals in markets” are to blame, said Yuen – and other scientists agree.

Even though bats may harbor potentially deadly viruses, we should not blame them as the cause of SARS or MERS. Rather, it is our quest to encroach into their habitats (in some cases an unintended consequence of urbanization) and engage in illegal wildlife trade that brings us into close contact with them.

Bats – best known for their ability to use sound waves for navigation – are the only mammals capable of flying and amazingly represent 20 percent of all mammalian species. They play crucial roles in pollinating trees and in seed dispersal.

Humans have peacefully co-existed with wildlife for millennia. Mass-culling of civets was not the answer to curb the spread of SARS. Exposing wild animals to species that they would otherwise not have come into contact with poses risks. We’re just beginning to see the consequences; SARS and MERS are only a couple of the many diseases lurking out there. Surely, we’ll be witnessing other exotic diseases in the future – it’s just a matter of time before a new virus surfaces.

Are we not somewhat responsible for the emergence of novel infectious diseases in humans? What can we do to prevent them in humans?


  1. Corman V.M., Eckerle I, Bleicker T, Zaki A, Landt O, Eschbach-Bludau M., van Boheemen S., Gopal R., Ballhause M,…Drosten C. (2012). Detection of a novel human coronavirus by real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reactionEuro Surveill, 17(39): pii=20285.
  2. Zaki A.M., van Boheemen S., Bestebroer T.M., Osterhaus ADME, Fouchier RAM. (2012). Isolation of a novel coronavirus from a man with pneumonia in Saudi ArabiaN Engl J Med,  367:1814-182. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1211721
  3. Wang, M., Yan, M., Xu, H., Liang, W., Kan, B., Zheng, B, Xu, J. (2005). SARS-CoV infection in a restaurant from palm civet. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 11(12), 1860-1865. DOI: 10.3201/eid1112.041293
  4. Tu, C., Crameri, G., Kong, X., Chen, J., Sun, Y., Yu, M.,…Wang, L.F. (2004). Antibodies to SARS coronavirus in civets. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 10(2), 2244-2248. DOI: 10.3201/eid1012.040520
  5. Lau, S.K.P., Woo, P.K.Y., Li, K.S.M., Huang, Y., Tsoi, H.W., Wong, B.H.L.,…Yuen, K-Y. (2005). Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-like virus in Chinese horseshoe bats. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102, 14040-14045. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0506735102
  6. Li, W., Shi, Z., Yu, M., Ren, W., Smith, C., Epstein, J.H.,…Wang, L.F.  (2005). Bats are natural reservoirs of SARS-like coronaviruses. Science, 310, 676-678.
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  9. Ithete N.L., Stoffberg S., Corman V.M., Cottontail V.M., Richards L.R., Schoeman M.C.,…Preiser W. (2013). Close relative of human Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus in bat, South Africa [letter]. Emerg Infect Dis [Internet]. 2013 Oct. DOI: 10.3201/eid1910.130946
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6 thoughts on “Animal Origins of the Deadly Middle Eastern Disease: A parallel to SARS

  1. Congratulations for your blog, it looks great!

    You’ve some really important information here that needs public attention. I remember the SARS scare and it was bad. And now MERS – when’s it going to stop! Are the future epidemics going to be ruled by the coronaviruses?

    But thanks to your post because I’d have never wondered that a seemingly simple cough and sore throat could really turn out to be that serious!

    So, what lessons do we learn from the origin of these diseases? The live-animal markets and the meat industry needs to adopt stringent hygiene rules and standards. And, let’s be merciful to animals and perhaps eat more vegetarian food? After all, we humans are responsible for this deadly outbreak by tampering with the nature’s balance.

    On a lighter note, since these diseases originate from the bats, we need to call batman to rescue us from them! 🙂

    Thanks Neha for this informative article and looking forward to more eye-opening and enlightening scientific facts from you. 🙂

    • Thanks! I’m glad you like the blog.

      SARS certainly caught us off-guard, which may explain the fear and panic that ensued. Personally, I was in one of the SARS affected countries during the epidemic, and I witnessed the fear of the public – just a cough or sneeze in a crowded train was enough to make people clear your vicinity!

      Coronaviruses tend to mutate quickly (because their genetic material consists of RNA as opposed to the more stable DNA), allowing them to adapt to new hosts. Perhaps, this is why they are dominating recent human epidemics.

      The SARS outbreak highlighted poor hygiene conditions in live-animal markets in China, and triggered the formulation of regulations that were previously non-existent, some of which led to improved hygiene and infection control.

      Retrospectively, we are better equipped to handle another epidemic – and SARS isn’t gone yet; wild animals continue to be relished in China, even today.

      I’m glad this article was helpful in making you more aware of the animal origins of recent infectious diseases.

  2. Coronaviruses are strange bugs. In spite of years of study, no one knows what to do about Feline Infectious Peritonitis, which is both a horrible disease and a medical puzzle. Why are enteric coronaviruses so ubiquitous, yet usually so benign? What makes a virus that has been living inside a cat for years turn pathogenic?

    In any case, I wish you luck with trying to make people more aware of the animal origins of human infectious disease. My own experience is that most physicians don’t have a very good understanding of zoonosis, and trying to get them to pay attention is not easy. We at PAZ are working on a few zoonotic diseases, but there are few grants that want to look at both sides of the equation at the same time.

    Please keep writing.

    • Thank you for your comment!

      The case of feline infectious disease is certainly interesting, especially why a small percentage of cats carrying the virus unfortunately get the debilitating disease. I suspect that some random mutations acquired by feline coronaviruses make them deadly. But also, some environmental factors such as stress may play a role in developing the disease.

      Also, I wonder how many cat owners know about this disease, particularly in developing countries. This reminds me of a strange occurrence during the SARS outbreak: apparently a few pet owners in SARS-affected countries had abandoned their cats and other pets fearing they may be carrying the SARS coronavirus after the media reported that civets might be the source.

      Thank you for sharing your experience. With the increasing number of unknown zoonotic diseases circulating, I think physicians cannot ignore them. I hope they pay more attention to them – before it gets too late.

      Good luck with your much-needed work in this area.

  3. Pingback: Corona Virus | microbelovingscientist

  4. These information being shared is really great and is full of facts coming from great references. I like how you use your blog to educate people.These information is really genuine and is helpful to all the people, because we really need to open our eye now on what is happening to us. It’s either the will of nature or is this the consequences that we need to face for the abusive action that poachers and illegal people do to our mother nature. Whatever the reason behind either man made or within natures will, it’s clearly a wake-up call to all of us.

    Thank you for sharing this great information. Keep writing to so that many will be awaken to the changes happening.

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