Scientists have found the mysterious MERS virus in a Saudi Arabian bat just a few kilometres from its first victim’s home, an international journal reported.

The discovery reported on Wednesday by Emerging Infectious Diseases is considered an important development in the search for the origin of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a deadly illness that is worrying health officials around the world.

The bat virus was an exact match to the first known human case of MERS and the sample was collected near that patient's home, the researchers said.

Saudi Arabia's Deputy Minister of Health and lead author of the report, Dr Ziad Memish, however, said it was likely that something else, perhaps another animal, was spreading the virus directly to humans.

Since last September when it was identified, the respiratory illness has sickened nearly 100 people, most of them in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. About half of them died.

Bats have been a suspected carrier of the virus for some time because they are known to carry viruses similar to MERS. They also harbour other deadly viruses, including rabies and SARS.

Still, discovery of a genetic match does not mean bats are the direct culprit.

There is no evidence of direct exposure to bats in the majority of human cases of MERS,” Memish said in a statement.

Signs of MERS-like viruses have been reported in other animals, including camels.

The researchers are investigating other species, said Dr W Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, another study author.

“This is but the first chapter in the global team's investigation,” Lipkin said in a statement.

The researchers collected more than 1,000 samples from seven bat species in Saudi Arabia and the exact match was seen in a fecal sample from an Egyptian Tomb Bat.

Source: Associated Press