In September, just days after receiving reports that a newly identified coronavirus
had claimed the life of a person in Saudi Arabia, NIAID and its international
partners began discussing potential studies of the virus. Their plans took
on greater urgency 8 days later when the United Kingdom reported treating the
same viral infection in a man who had recently traveled in Saudi Arabia. This
These first two cases sparked fears among scientists of a new SARS-like outbreak.
SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—also is caused by a coronavirus,
which in 2003 spread rapidly from person to person, sickening more than
8,000 people and killing more than 900 worldwide. Until SARS, most scientists
viewed coronaviruses as relatively harmless causes of the common cold.
Transmission electron micrograph of the
newly discovered coronavirus
As of Nov. 30, the World Health Organization
had reported 9 laboratoryconfirmed
cases of infection with the
novel coronavirus, including 5 deaths.
For the latest news, visit www.who.
In response to the outbreak, Drs.
Heinz Feldmann and Vincent Munster
at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories
(RML) in Hamilton, Mont., have
begun studies of the coronavirus in
Syrian hamsters and rhesus macaques.
Their partners at Erasmus University
in The Netherlands are conducting
similar tests in ferrets and cynomolgus
macaques. The groups are coordinating
their work to determine which
species may be the most suitable to study as a model of human infection. The
same four animal species are used to study other human respiratory diseases,
most notably SARS, influenza and hantavirus.
The new coronavirus is closely related to coronaviruses isolated from bats, suggesting
that these animals might be its natural carrier. RML’s virus ecology unit
conducts research on viruses that originate from bats, such as Ebola and Nipah;
this new coronavirus underscores the need for NIAID research on infectious disease
ecology and natural carriers, or reservoirs, of infectious agents.
“The virus appears to cause severe lung and kidney damage,” said Feldmann, who
in 2003 was among a group of scientists who tracked the spread of the SARS
virus from its origin in southern China to a Hong Kong hotel, where it affected
“We want to mimic human infection in an animal model to understand how this
novel coronavirus causes disease and whether there is a potential for transmission
of the virus among humans,” he said.
Once the scientists learn how the virus spreads in an animal model, they will
begin working on countermeasures such as antiviral treatment and vaccines to
assist preparedness efforts.
“Several weeks passed between the cases, so we still are not sure whether there
is potential for this new coronavirus to infect more people,” said Munster, who
heads the virus ecology unit. “Our studies will provide valuable knowledge that
should help us if this disease is indeed similar to SARS.”—Ken Pekoc