In addition to testing in real time, some health authorities are interested in exploring collections of stored specimens taken from previous respiratory infection cases to see if the new coronavirus is hiding in some of them. Qatar has over 300 samples it has collected in the past few years as part of a sentinel surveillance project for influenza. Mounts says researchers will be looking both for virus particles in respiratory samples such as from nasal swabs and antibodies to the virus in stored blood samples.
But the latter work requires a serological test for this virus, and to date there is none available. That should soon change. Zambon says HPA scientists are close to completing work on a blood test for the virus; they hope to have it ready for use by Christmas.
The other possibility, of course, is that this is indeed a virus that is new to humans, one that very likely comes from an animal source. When Ron A. M. Fouchier and his colleagues at EMC compared the virus's genetic sequence to those of other known coronaviruses, they concluded it probably comes from bats. The genetic code cannot illuminate whether the virus would have come to humans directly from the winged mammals—through fruit contaminated with bat saliva or urine, for instance—or indirectly, with the virus moving from bats to other animals and through them to people. Why it would suddenly start finding its way from its reservoir species to people now is another question without an answer at this point.
*Editor's note (12/3/12): The statistics in these paragraphs have been updated to reflect new information that became available after this story was originally posted.