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How a virus spreads from animals to humans

On June 24, 2012, a 60-year-old Saudi man died from severe pneumonia complicated by renal failure. He had arrived at a hospital in Jiddah 11 days earlier, and some of his symptoms were similar to those in severe cases of influenza or SARS, but this wasn't either of those diseases.

This was something new.

Last September, an Egyptian virologist announced what it was: The illness was caused by a new virus in a family called coronaviruses, which includes the virus responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Several months later, epidemiologists named the new illness MERS, for Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome.

MERS, like its relative SARS, probably originated in animals.

Those revelations only bred more questions. First, where did this new virus come from, and how? Tracking a disease's jump from animals to humans often means untangling a very complicated scientific mystery - a mystery that, in the interest of public health, must be solved quickly.

"The race is on," said Dr. Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a scientific group working with scientists at Columbia University and the Saudi Ministry of Health in the hunt for the origins of MERS. "It's a race against evolution."

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