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Bats Eyed as Source of MERS Coronavirus

David De Lossy/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- The mysterious virus that has killed at least 47 people in the Middle East and Europe has been found in a bat native to Saudi Arabia -- ground zero for the outbreak.

The virus, dubbed MERS CoV for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, emerged in April 2012.  But despite 96 infections in nine countries -- all of them tied to the Middle East -- the source of the virus has stumped health officials.

To see whether bats could be the culprit, researchers tested seven species found in Saudi Arabia, where the virus has sickened 76 people and killed 39.  Fecal matter from one bat, from the species Taphozous perforates, tested positive for a strain of the virus that was genetically identical to that from a patient in Bisha, a town in southwestern Saudi Arabia.

“Cross-species transmission from bats to humans can be direct, through contact with infected bats or their excreta, or facilitated by intermediate hosts,” the researchers wrote, stressing that the mechanism by which the virus might leap from bat to human is still unclear.

But the study, published online in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, fails to definitively tie the deadly virus to bats, as some infected people are thought to have contracted the virus through relatives or, in the case of hospital workers, patients.  Earlier this month, a different group of researchers suggested camels could be transmitting the virus.

“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,” the study authors wrote.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio