Montana scientists studying deadly coronavirus

Scientists at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, are attempting to understand a deadly new coronavirus that killed six people in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Researchers said that bats may act as the natural carrier for the new coronavirus, a relative to the virus that caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003. Other viruses that originate from bats include Ebola and Nipah, both considered to be biological agents, the Billings Gazette reports.

The coronavirus that caused SARS spread rapidly from person to person through the air, infecting more than 8,000 patients and killing more than 900 in several countries. The new coronavirus has killed six people and infected five others.

"The virus appears to cause severe lung and kidney damage," Heinz Feldmann, the chief of the Laboratory of Virology at RML, said, according to the Billings Gazette. "We want to mimic human infection in an animal model to understand how this novel coronavirus causes disease and whether there is a potential for transmission of the virus among humans."

After the scientists learn how the virus spreads in an animal model, they will start to work on countermeasures like antiviral treatments and vaccines.

"Several weeks passed between the cases, so we still are not sure whether there is potential for this new coronavirus to infect more people," Vincent Munster, the head of the Virus Ecology Unit at RML, said, according to the Billings Gazette. "Our studies will provide valuable knowledge that should help us if this disease is indeed similar to SARS."

Nipah, another virus carried by bats, is considered a biological weapon because it can infect humans and has a case fatality rate as high as 50 percent, CIDRAP News reports.

The new coronavirus has yet to be officially classified as a biological agent.