Monday 26 August 2013

Prof Lipkin: There is no more sequence coming from that bat sample

Many thanks to Prof Ian Lipkin's indulgence of my eMail questions.
Also, check out the TWiV webcast by Prof Lipkin.

So, I guess to carry on from last night's post....I stand surprised. 

Not even next-generation sequencing could pull any more sequence from the MERS-CoV-positive T.perforatus bat samples that thawed after the dry shipper (not a box+dry ice as I previously guessed, but a vacuum sealed vessel previously brought to -150°C then all free liquid nitrogen removed for transport; shipped by FedEx) was opened and the cold chain interrupted after arriving from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). 

According to Prof Lipkin, in an email exchange we had last night, the group also tried a couple of runs of next-gen sequencing.

..we tried two separate ion torrent runs with no joy.

So why was only 1 October 2012 sample positive for the MERS-CoV strain? Prof Lipkin concludes that..

..the concentration of template was already extremely low in the sample at the time of field collection and lower still at the time of arrival in our Center. I would not be surprised if two aliquots of the same sample yielded different results in different labs. However, we will never have an opportunity to know because there is no more sample to test.

At the time of receiving the October samples (no MERS-CoV was found in the April samples), no viral gene/gene fragment/genome cloning had been done in Prof Lipkin's lab. A common potential source of PCR contamination ruled out. 

How does your group know that this 182 basepair nucleotide sequence was not a contaminant from somewhere else? 

The one sample came up positive repeatedly with the same assay. No other sample did so. We have recovered no other fragments that correlate with a MERS-like CoV in samples collected in the October 2012 or in the subsequent April 2013 field collections.

Antibodies were not sought in the massive 10μl of bat blood obtained per bat (the bats were released after sampling). But do these findings exclude the possibility that other bats, like those from genus Pipistrellus and Neoromicia (both from the family Vespertilionidae), or genus Nycteris, family Nycteridae, may be a host for MERS-CoV? At a World Health Organisation meeting in Cairo, Prof Lipkin told the the audience that..

...our findings don't exclude the presence of virus in a Vesper bat and that we were doing everything anyone suggested to test alternative explanations, including reagent contamination. We went back to the original materials using every specific and consensus primer set we and others had designed until all of the original material was exhausted. The results were the same. I sat on these data for months hoping to find another positive bat in subsequent field expeditions where we could report more sequence.

The decision to report it now was multifactorial. First and foremost, we tested every possible alternative explanation for the sample coming up positive other than that this fragment is bona fide-we can't find an alternative explanation. Second, there are no other reports from animals in KSA-I discussed phylogenetic analyses with several people in light of what was found elsewhere in Africa in Vesper bats. This fragment, although short and located in the RdRp is informative....Third, the scientists who did the work in the US and the Ministry of Health of KSA wanted to see it reported. There is a point where one has to get the work out in the public domain.

What's next in the search for animals hosting this virus and in trying to confirm what the group has just reported? There will also be a new European collaborative report (UK and KSA) coming out very soon that has new human MERS-CoV sequences suggesting multiple human introductions (animal to human?) with much more sequence variation in the MERS-CoV genome than we have seen thus far. This will further support the conclusion that the T.perforatus CoV is one and the same virus as that which infects humans.

...field expeditions should begin in the next few months and we will look again. The amount of time and resource invested already is far more than intended. I've never put in so much to recover so little.

Thank you to Prof Lipkin. This gives a some valuable insight into his careful efforts to deduce what animals may host a MERS-CoV strain,m as the first step in tracking how humans in the KSA are getting infected. It also highlights that finding even a basic piece of information requires many steps, lots of people, much effort and some luck. But if virus hunting was easy, everyone would do it right?

Some slight editing for brevity, and to account for mobile phone thumbs, was undertaken by VDU.


  1. There are still need for scientific virology work - not just one or two push of NSG sequencer button

    1. Absolutely true. We're a looong way from not needing a human to interpret the results.


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