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Further Evidence for Bats as the Evolutionary Source of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus

Map showing the distribution of Pipistrellus hesperidus (based on International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] data) and the location of the bat sampled for the study. Source: Anthony et al 2017 MERSCoV mBIO

The evolutionary origins of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus (MERS-CoV) are unknown. Current evidence suggests that insectivorous bats are likely to be the original source, as several 2c CoVs have been described from various species in the family Vespertilionidae. Here, we describe a MERS-like CoV identified from a Pipistrellus cf. hesperidus bat sampled in Uganda (strain PREDICT/PDF-2180), further supporting the hypothesis that bats are the evolutionary source of MERS-CoV. Phylogenetic analysis showed that PREDICT/PDF-2180 is closely related to MERS-CoV across much of its genome, consistent with a common ancestry; however, the spike protein was highly divergent (46% amino acid identity), suggesting that the two viruses may have different receptor binding properties. Indeed, several amino acid substitutions were identified in key binding residues that were predicted to block PREDICT/PDF-2180 from attaching to the MERS-CoV DPP4 receptor. To experimentally test this hypothesis, an infectious MERS-CoV clone expressing the PREDICT/PDF-2180 spike protein was generated. Recombinant viruses derived from the clone were replication competent but unable to spread and establish new infections in Vero cells or primary human airway epithelial cells. Our findings suggest that PREDICT/PDF-2180 is unlikely to pose a zoonotic threat. Recombination in the S1 subunit of the spike gene was identified as the primary mechanism driving variation in the spike phenotype and was likely one of the critical steps in the evolution and emergence of MERS-CoV in humans.

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Source: Prof. Denis K. Byarugaba, College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources and Biosecurity, Makerere University

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