July 8, 2013
In other developments, US scientists may begin testing animal samples from Saudi Arabia this week, after succeeding in a difficult effort to get the samples into the United States, the Canadian Press reported today. The testing is part of ongoing effort to figure out the virus's animal origin.
A team headed by Ian Lipkin, PhD, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, collected specimens from hoofed animals during a trip to Saudi Arabia in April, the story said.
But because Saudi Arabia has foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), a highly contagious cattle disease, the samples could not readily be brought into the United States, Lipkin said. Through deliberations that went all the way to the White House, however, he was able to circumvent the problem.
The samples will be tested at the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Plum Island Animal Disease Center, off Long Island.
If the USDA lab finds the samples to be free of FMD virus, they will be released to Lipkin's lab, which will test them for evidence of MERS-CoV, similar viruses, or antibodies to the virus, according to the story.
Lipkin also reported that a bat sample that was collected in Saudi Arabia last October contained a trace of virus that looked like MERS-CoV. But the sample arrived in poor condition, leaving too little material to justify confidence in the finding, he reported. The virus is related to coronaviruses found in bats.
The story also said Lipkin's lab has been testing blood samples from more than 200 Saudi Arabians, including MERS case-patients and contacts of patients. The tests for MERS-CoV antibodies may eventually shed light on whether there have been many mild or asymptomatic cases that have remained invisible.
Cross-reactive antibodiesIn other news, a research team from the University of Hong Kong said antibodies to the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus may cross-react with other betacoronaviruses, including MERS-CoV. The team said this finding could complicate efforts to identify people carrying antibodies indicating past exposure to MERS-CoV.
Writing in the Journal of Infection, the researchers said they tested archived serum samples from 94 workers at wildlife markets, 28 SARS patients, and 152 healthy blood donors. Immunofluorescence screening suggested that 17 of 28 SARS patients had significant MERS-CoV antibody titers, and 7 of 28 had low levels of neutralizing antibodies.