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WEDNESDAY, Dec. 12 (HealthDay News) -- The new SARS-like coronavirus that's caused five deaths and four other cases of severe illness in the Middle East can infect cells from bats and pigs, which means these animals could be a continuing source of infection in humans, a new study indicates.
During the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, nearly 8,100 people became sick worldwide and 774 of them died, according to the World Health Organization.
Researchers found that the new virus -- called hCoV-EMC -- uses a different receptor in the human body than the SARS virus did, and can infect cells from a wide range of bat species and pigs. This suggests that there may be little to prevent the virus from passing from these animals to humans over and over again, according to the study published Dec. 11 in the online journal mBio.
The new virus was first identified in a patient in Saudi Arabia in June. Although the virus does not appear to pass easily from person-to-person, the fatality rate and the fact that the source of the virus has not been identified has caused concern among public health officials worldwide.
People with hCoV-EMC infection experience severe pneumonia and often kidney failure.
"This virus is closely related to the SARS virus, and looking at the clinical picture, it causes the same pattern of disease," study author Christian Drosten, of the University of Bonn Medical Centre in Germany, said in a news release from the American Society for Microbiology.
Research on the new virus is continuing in many laboratories and hospitals. Drosten said it's especially important to identify the animal source of the virus, which would be a crucial piece of information in managing a potential outbreak.
Like SARS, the new virus is most closely related to coronaviruses from bats and can infect bat species that are present all across Europe and into the Arabian Peninsula.
The World Health Organization has more about the new SARS-like virus.