A novel SARS-like coronavirus that killed five people in the Middle East has the ability to infect cells of animals like bats and pigs, says a new study.
Although the current studies on the new virus report that the virus doesn't spread between humans, the fact that the virus can infect pigs and bats makes the virus more diverse and deadlier than SARS.
The new virus is called hCoV-EMC. People infected with hCoV-EMC suffer from severe pneumonia and often kidney failure. The first case of this infection was reported from Saudi Arabia.
"This virus is closely related to the SARS virus, and looking at the clinical picture, it causes the same pattern of disease," said Christian Drosten of the University of Bonn Medical Centre in German, a lead author of the study, in a news release from the American Society for Microbiology.
In 2002 SARS coronavirus killed about 800 people in 30 countries. The outbreak was traced back to Hong Kong.
The receptor for SARS virus, called ACE2, is present in pneumocytes deep within human lungs, making it tougher for the virus to cause the infection. Also, the symptoms of the infection with SARS start quickly, so the infected person can be removed from the community and treated. This was the reason why the SARS outbreak, though bad, wasn't disastrous.
Researchers say that the new coronavirus that has a different unknown receptor meaning that the virus may lead to an outbreak that could be worse than the SARS outbreak.
In the second part of the study, researchers found that SARS used to infect bats. But, it lost its ability to cause disease in bats after it began infecting humans.
However, hCoV-EMC still has the ability to infect both bats and humans.
"This was a big surprise. It's completely unusual for any coronavirus to be able to do that - to go back to its original reservoir," said Drosten.
A bigger surprise was that the virus could even infect cells in pigs, showing that certain structures that were present in these animals were acting as receptors to this virus.
Drosten added that he's also driven to find the animal source of the virus, a finding that may lead to ways to manage the spread of the virus. The potential bat hosts for the virus are present all across Europe and Arabia, according to American Society for Microbiology.
The study is published in the journal mBio.