Did SARS come from bats?

Wild bats, rather than civet cats, may have been the source of the coronavirus behind the deadly SARS outbreak in 2003.

Oct 24, 2005
Charles Choi
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© Rollin Verlinde

Wild bats, rather than civet cats, may have been the source of the coronavirus behind the deadly SARS outbreak in 2003. Lin-fa Wang of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong and colleagues in China, Australia, and the United States tested blood, throat, and fecal swabs from 408 wild horseshoe bats, representing nine species, from four locations in Mainland China. Analyses revealed SARS-like coronavirus in five fecal samples from Rhinolophus pearsoni, Rhinolophus macrotis, and Rhinolophus ferrumequinum.1

Bat-derived viruses revealed greater genetic variation than human or civet isolates. "It's pretty clear from that phylogeny that this is the origin of SARS," says coauthor Peter Daszak, executive director of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine based at the Wildlife Trust in New York. Independently, Kwok-Yung Yuen of the University of Hong Kong and his colleagues analyzed blood samples and nasopharyngeal and anal swabs from Rhinolophus sinicus from Hong Kong. Results revealed coronavirus only in anal swabs, suggesting it might grow intestinally.2

"It's essential to know the disease reservoir if future outbreaks are to be stopped," says Andrew Dobson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. "This research allows us to focus on finding pragmatic ways of minimizing contacts between bats and humans."