The Saudi health ministry said that it would send samples taken from animals possibly infected with a deadly SARS-like virus to the United States for testing in a bid to find the source of disease.
The ministry has "collected large samples from bats and other animals, including camels, sheep and cats," said Saudi Deputy Health Minister Ziad Memish.
AdvertisementSo far, there have been 44 lab-confirmed cases worldwide of the virus, which until now has been known as the novel coronavirus, or nCoV-EMC, but was this week redubbed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS.
Saudi Arabia counts by far the most cases, with 30 confirmed infections and 17 fatalities, while cases have also been detected in Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Britain and France.
Memish told diplomats gathered in Geneva for the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, that his country until now had not been able to send samples from animals besides bats to the United States.
"But now... we've got an approval to move these samples and they will be shipped for testing," he said.
The virus is a cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which triggered a scare 10 years ago when it erupted in east Asia, leaping to humans from animal hosts and eventually killing some 800 people.
Scientists at the Erasmus medical centre in Rotterdam have determined that the virus appears to infect the body via a docking point in lung cells, suggesting bats may be a natural reservoir for it.
Bats were also pinpointed as a likely natural reservoir for SARS in a 2005 study, and are known carriers of the deadly haemorrhagic fever Ebola.