Evidence mounts for bat origins of SARS

New viruses in the mammals closely match human form of the infection

BAT-SARS LINK GROWS  New viruses found in Chinese horseshoe bats resemble the SARS coronavirus and use the receptor molecule that SARS does to infect human cells.

Libiao Zhang/South China Institute of Endangered Animals

Chinese horseshoe bats carry two newly identified viruses that are closely related to the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in people. The discovery, reported October 30 in Nature, provides the strongest evidence to date that SARS may have originated in bats.

The spread of SARS in 2002–2003 caused a pandemic that sickened more than 8,000 people and killed 774 worldwide. Scientists have identified several SARS-like coronaviruses in bats in China, Europe and Africa and proposed that the animals may have spread the virus to humans. But there’s been no strong evidence to support the idea.

In the new study, led by Xing-Yi Ge of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, scientists analyzed the genomes of the newly identified bat coronaviruses. The results show that these viruses are more closely related to the SARS coronavirus than to other SARS-like microbes previously identified in bats. The new viruses also use the same human cell receptor as SARS does to invade cells.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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