Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which was documented at the end of February 2003, reportedly comes from Chinese bats, according to a team of researchers and scientists.
A study entitled "Isolation and characterization of a bat SARS-like coronavirus that uses the ACE2 receptor," found that Chinese horseshoe bats from the Rhinolophidae family are indeed the natural "reservoirs" of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV).
This study also shows how important it is to prepare for pandemic diseases. It emphasizes how programs that discover pathogens through the study of high-risk wildlife groups in areas found to be the source of emerging diseases, are vital to the prevention of infection.
The team of researchers and scientists who were involved in the said study were mostly composed of Chinese researchers, with a few Australians. They are Xing-Yi Ge, Xing-Lou Yang, Guangjian Zhu, Jia-Lu Li, Wei Zhang, Cheng Peng, Yu-Ji Zhang, Ben Hu, Chu-Ming Luo, Ning Wang, Zheng-Li Shi, Lin-Fa Wang, Bing Tan, Yan Zhu, Shu-Yi Zhang, Peter Daszak, Aleksei A. Chmura, Jonna K. Mazet, Jonathan H. Epstein and Gary Crameri.
According to the team, two new viruses similar to SARS, which are Rs3367 and RsSHC014, have been found in Chinese horseshoe bats that mostly come from the Yunnan province of China.
"The viruses differed from SARS, particularly in the region of the virus that binds to a host protein called ACE2, facilitating infection," said Crameri, a virologist at The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO) Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong.
"This shows, that right now in China, there are bats carrying a virus that can directly infect people, and cause another SARS pandemic," said Peter Daszak in an ABC report. He is one of the authors of the study and president of EcoHealth Alliance in New York City.
The study also reports the first recorded isolation of a live SL-CoV (bat SL-CoV-WIV1) from bat faecal samples in Vero E6 cells, which is almost identical to the Rs3367 virus.
Before, palm civets were thought to be instrumental in the proliferation of the SARS virus in humans because some of these animals were found to carry a virus that is almost identical to the human SARS virus. But, this new research suggests that civets or other intermediate hosts were not needed to infect humans because exposure to the bats' faeces alone can do that.
"Humans are mainly exposed to viruses from bats via the animals' faeces," said Crameri.
"Stress in the animals appears to increase this shedding," he added.
The "Isolation and characterization of a bat SARS-like coronavirus that uses the ACE2 receptor," study further confirms the health risks of exposure to bats. This is not just about SARS, but also about other viruses such as those similar to hepatitis C.
According to a previous report published on April 23, 2013 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that hepaciviruses and pegiviruses have been in bats for a very long time.
Meanwhile, another coronavirus called the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is presently wreaking havoc.
Crameri claims that the MERS virus also appears to originate from a microbat. It is said to be less infectious than SARS, but kills a higher percentage of those it infects. It differs from SARS because it uses a different receptor to bind to human cells.
Professor Charles Watson, John Curtin Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University, says the current MERS outbreak reminds us that major human epidemics maybe caused by coronaviruses.
"The 2002 coronavirus pandemic, caused by the SARS coronavirus ... was a serious public health threat, with over 8000 cases worldwide," said Watson.
"While the MERS ... outbreak has so far infected less than 200 individuals, it is clear that the coronavirus must be carefully watched," he said.
However, Christian Drosten, a coronavirus expert at the University of Bonn in Germany, also warns against overinterpreting the results of the studies. He says that lab experiments don't necessarily mean that the virus can actually infect human beings.
"Receptor studies and cell culture aren't everything. You would have to take this virus and see in an animal experiment whether it can, for instance, infect a primate," said Drosten.
Still, it is better to be safe than sorry. If a study says SARS comes from Chinese horseshoe bats, people shouldn't risk getting infected by hunting or eating bats where the situation is questionable. If you're planning a spelunking adventure, have some research done on the health situation in your travel destination. Bat droppings can land on you while spelunking and it might ruin the adventure!
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