Bat cave solves mystery of deadly SARS virus — and suggests new outbreak could occur
Chinese scientists find all the genetic building blocks of SARS in a single population of horseshoe bats.
After a detective hunt across China, researchers chasing the origin of the deadly SARS virus have finally found their smoking gun. In a remote cave in Yunnan province, virologists have identified a single population of horseshoe bats that harbours virus strains with all the genetic building blocks of the one that jumped to humans in 2002, killing almost 800 people around the world.
The killer strain could easily have arisen from such a bat population, the researchers report in PLoS Pathogens1 on 30 November. They warn that the ingredients are in place for a similar disease to emerge again.
In late 2002, cases of a mystery pneumonia-like illness began occurring in Guangdong province, southeastern China. The disease, dubbed severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), triggered a global emergency as it spread around the world in 2003, infecting thousands of people.
Scientists identified the culprit as a strain of coronavirus and found genetically similar viruses in masked palm civets (Paguma larvata) sold in Guangdong’s animal markets. Later surveys revealed large numbers of SARS-related coronaviruses circulating in China’s horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus)2 — suggesting that the deadly strain probably originated in the bats, and later passed through civets before reaching humans. But crucial genes — for a protein that allows the virus to latch onto and infect cells — were different in the human and known bat versions of the virus, leaving room for doubt about this hypothesis.
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