Mystery Virus of the Middle East

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By Collin Myers, Technical Writer/Marketing Assistant

A very long time ago, on a languid summer afternoon, my friends and I crawled through a drainpipe that ran beneath our hometown. Faced with an ongoing stretch of pure darkness, we trudged along warm concrete on our hands and knees, shredding hammocks of cobwebs and avoiding giant spiders that still haunt my sleep. We were ambushed at one point by a flock of bats perturbed by our presence in their underground lair. At the thought of contracting rabies, we raced through the darkness as fast as we could until we reached daylight.  

Scientists have now started exploring dark caves in remote villages of Saudi Arabia, trying to locate nests of bats as an extension of research efforts to better understand MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), an illness detected in the country last year that has infected at least 77 people. MERS is caused by a coronavirus, similar to the deadly virus responsible for the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003 infected 8,000 people and killed roughly 800. The baffling issue facing scientists at present: they do not know where the virus originated and how contagious it truly is. Cases of the virus have also been reported in Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Travelers have spread the disease to France, Italy, Tunisia, and England. There are not yet any reports that MERS has reached the United States.

MERS can be transmitted via coughing, sneezing, and contaminated surfaces. People suffering from chronic ailments are most susceptible to the disease. More men have contracted MERS than women; theories suggest that this is because, in the Middle East, women are protected from the virus by their veils. Infections can be particularly devastating to sick people with diabetes who are immunocompromised. Symptoms can also range from severe fever and cough to pneumonia and kidney failure.  

Scientists are attempting to discover where the disease is coming from in an effort to better understand how to avoid exposure. Bats are the most likely carrier because of their link to SARS, which also originates from a coronavirus. It is not yet known if bats are transmitting the disease directly to humans, or if there is a longer, more complex chain of infectivity starting with bats spreading the disease to various animals and then eventually to humans. Scientists from Columbia University have teamed up with the Saudi Ministry of Health, trekking through disparate towns where MERS has been reported, asking villagers and families to identify specific species of bats. Along with SARS and MERS, bats are also often carriers of rabies. There are over 1,200 species of bat, and so far only around 20 to 30 have been classified in Saudi Arabia.

Bats only weigh around four grams, and testing takes about 15 minutes: scientists swab for saliva, feces, and collect a tiny piece of flesh from the wing to use in DNA testing. The team of cave-rambling scientists have been using massive nets to collect flocks as they attempt to fly out of their caves in the nighttime to search for insects. As one scientist puts it, they’re “little flying fur balls.??? To avoid a nasty bite, or further infection, the bat hunters performing cave searches dress up to cover every inch of their bodies, donning coveralls, gloves, hoods, respirators, and booties, despite the intense desert heat. Last summer, the team stumbled upon a cave in a southwestern village that was the home to a roost of about 500 bats. 

In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that two health care workers in Saudi Arabia had been exposed to MERS while treating patients. The WHO and CDC have not yet issued warnings for travelers heading to the Middle East. There are no treatments and no effective vaccines for MERS or SARS available to the public. Only time will tell if MERS manages to spread as rapidly as SARS and reach pandemic levels. 

In a few weeks, I’ll be flying across the Atlantic to spend two weeks in Europe with some close friends. As we finalize our plans and start prepping for our departure, I find myself feeling a bit paranoid and worried about the recent outbreak of disease sweeping across countries in the Middle East and Europe. At the moment, these threats seem distant and unlikely to hinder our adventures, but I realize now that once we land in Germany, we’ll be as vulnerable as anyone else in the region. I’m not the only person wary of traveling abroad: my colleague, Dr. Rhonda Schwartz, is also skeptical of her pending vacation to France (see our May 25th Blog “Influenza Is For The Birds???). While there is the possibility that MERS may run its course and eventually die out on its own, I can’t help but think of a quote from Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the C.D.C., who claims, “New illnesses are just a plane ride away.???