Chinese bats likely source of SARS virus, researchers report

September / October 2013 | Volume 12, Issue 5

Scientists say they've produced "the clearest evidence yet" the SARS virus originated in Chinese horseshoe bats and that direct bat-to-human transmission is "plausible." The 2002 severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) pandemic was one of the most significant public health events in recent history and researchers have been studying the virus to better understand how it is transmitted to prepare for future outbreaks.

Close up photo of profile of face of horseshoe bat, has brown fur, large dark ears and complex nose with many folds of skin
Photo by Dr. Libiao Zhang, Guangdong Entomological
Institute /South China Institute of Endangered Animals

Researchers say the Chinese horseshoe bat is
likely the source of the 2002 severe acute
respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV)
pandemic.

An international research team - with participants in China, Australia, Singapore and the U.S. - has published its results in the journal Nature. "Our discovery that bats carrying SARS-CoV may be able to directly infect humans has enormous implications for public health control measures," stated co-author Dr. Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. Daszak is principal investigator on an NIH/National Science Foundation (NSF) Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) grant that provided some project funding.

The results are based on genetic analysis of samples taken over the course of a year from members of a horseshoe bat colony in Kunming, China. At least seven different strains of SL-CoVs were found to be circulating within the single group of bats. The findings highlight the importance of research programs targeting high-risk wildlife groups in emerging disease hotspots to predict, prepare for and prevent pandemics, the researchers suggest.

"Our findings suggest that SARS-like coronaviruses are diverse and abundant in bats in Asia, and the potential for future spillover remains high," Daszak noted. "If we add this to the recent finding that Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) originates in Saudi Arabian bats, it's strong evidence that bat coronaviruses remain a substantial global threat to public health."

One man holds large bamboo rat by scruff of neck, another man swabs rat's mouth, both men wear gloves and masks
Photo courtesy of EcoHealth Alliance

Co-authors of the paper Dr. Peter Daszak and
Dr. Guangjian Zhu collect samples from a Chinese
rat, part of their study that shows direct animal-
to-human disease transmission of SARS-CoV is
plausible.

The EEID program is a joint NIH-NSF initiative that supports efforts to understand the underlying ecological and biological mechanisms that govern relationships between human-induced environmental changes and the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases. The highly interdisciplinary research projects supported apply both ecological and biomedical methods and study how environmental events such as habitat alteration, biological invasion, climate change, and pollution alter the risks of emergence and transmission of viral, parasitic and bacterial diseases in humans and other animals. Fogarty manages NIH participation in the venture and oversees the Daszak award (R01TW005869).

Additional U.S. government funding for the research came from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH (R01AI079231), a Fogarty award supported with International Influenza Funds from the Department of Health and Human Services (R56TW009502) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT initiative. The State Key Program for Basic Research and the National Natural Science Foundation of China also provided support.

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