ABCThe SARS virus appears to have originated in horseshoe bats from China.
The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus which killed 774 people originated in horseshoe bats from China, scientists have confirmed.
SARS killed nearly 10 per cent of the people it infected during the 2002-2003 pandemic, mainly in China and Hong Kong.
A research team, which included scientists from the CSIRO in Geelong, found a very close relative of the virus in faecal samples from horseshoe bats.
Researcher Gary Crameri said scientists long suspected bats were the origin of the virus.
“We’ve been looking at bats for the past eight years, looking for this particular virus,” he said.
“Although a lot of groups across the world have been, this particular virus can affect humans like the original one and that’s really been the key to this particular virus.”
Mr Cameri said it was possible the bats had developed a productive relationship with the virus over many years.
“But when they spill out into other mammals, like humans, they can be devastating,” he said.Â
Mr Crameri said the focus had been on finding the virus’s origin and other similar viruses, rather than a vaccine.
“It’s key for us to get a clear understanding of bats and the role that not only them, but other animals will play in future health scenarios,” he said.
Mr Crameri said SARS bats do not pose a risk to people in general, but he encouraged people to be wary when handling them.
“The less we encroach on their environments, the better,” he said.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome also originated in bats
While SARS is now under control because wet markets are being controlled by authorities, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), caused by another coronavirus, is currently a problem.
Mr Crameri says the MERS virus, which also appears to come from a microbat, binds to human cells via a different receptor and is less infectious than SARS, although kills a higher percentage of those it infects.
Bats are an ancient animal that diverged from other mammals 80 million years ago and Mr Crameri said this could explain why they carry a high number of pathogens that they themselves are unaffected by.
“The bats and the viruses have evolved together,” he said.
Experts have welcomed the new research.
“To this point, no one had been able to find the SARS coronavirus in bats,” Sanjaya Senanayake, an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Australian National University, said.
“Of the 40 or so new infections in humans discovered in the last 40 years, most have come from animals.
“Now that animals, including bats, and humans live closer together as our population expands globally, the opportunity for direct transmission of these dangerous viruses becomes more and more of an issue.”
Professor Charles Watson, John Curtin Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University, says the recent outbreak of MERS reminds us coronaviruses are a potential cause of major human epidemics.
“The 2002 coronavirus pandemic, caused by the SARS coronavirus… was a serious public health threat, with over 8,000 cases worldwide,” he said.
“While the MERS… outbreak has so far infected less than 200 individuals, it is clear that the coronavirus must be carefully watched.”
The research has been published in the journal Nature.