Rooting the phylogenetic tree of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus by characterization of a conspecific virus from an African bat

Corman, V. M. ; Ithete, Ndapewa L. ; Richards, L. R. ; Schoeman, M. C. ; Preiser, Wolfgang ; Drosten, C. ; Drexler, J. F. (2014-10)

CITATION: Corman, V. M. et al. 2014. Rooting the phylogenetic tree of middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus by characterization of a conspecific virus from an African bat. Journal of Virology. 88(19):11297-303. doi: 10.1128/JVI.01498-14.

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The emerging Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) causes lethal respiratory infections mainly on the Arabian Peninsula. The evolutionary origins of MERS-CoV are unknown. We determined the full genome sequence of a CoV directly from fecal material obtained from a South African Neoromicia capensis bat (NeoCoV). NeoCoV shared essential details of genome architecture with MERS-CoV. Eighty-five percent of the NeoCoV genome was identical to MERS-CoV at the nucleotide level. Based on taxonomic criteria, NeoCoV and MERS-CoV belonged to one viral species. The presence of a genetically divergent S1 subunit within the NeoCoV spike gene indicated that intraspike recombination events may have been involved in the emergence of MERS-CoV. NeoCoV constitutes a sister taxon of MERS-CoV, placing the MERS-CoV root between a recently described virus from African camels and all other viruses. This suggests a higher level of viral diversity in camels than in humans. Together with serologic evidence for widespread MERS-CoV infection in camelids sampled up to 20 years ago in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the genetic data indicate that camels act as sources of virus for humans rather than vice versa. The majority of camels on the Arabian Peninsula is imported from the Greater Horn of Africa, where several Neoromicia species occur. The acquisition of MERS-CoV by camels from bats might have taken place in sub-Saharan Africa. Camelids may represent mixing vessels for MERS-CoV and other mammalian CoVs.

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