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Bats confirmed as SARS origin

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A team of international scientists have confirmed that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), which killed 774 people in a pandemic a decade ago, originated in China from horseshoe bats.

The research team, led by Professor Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Institute of Virology Professor Linfa Wang from Duke-NUS, found two strains of SARS-CoV in horseshoe bats which they claimed were very similar to the virus that infected humans.

During the SARS pandemic in 2002 and 2003, more than 8000 people were infected with the virus, and the mortality rate reached almost 10 per cent.

Professor Shi and his colleagues believe the virus was transferred from horseshoe bats to civets, which were then captured and sold in food markets in China. During this period, they theorise, the virus underwent genetic changes and leapt across species to infect humans.

This is the first time a live SARS-CoV virus has been successfully isolated from bats. To achieve this, Professor Shi and his colleagues used advanced methods developed by scientists at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong.

The researchers said discovery that horseshoe bats, which are an important part of ecosystems around the world, including in Australia, harbour the SARS-CoV virus process highlights the importance of protecting the bat’s natural habitat so they are not forced into urban areas where they are likely to come into close contact with humans.

“The less we encroach on their environments, the better,” researcher Gary Crameri told ABC News.

The finding will help governments design more effective prevention strategies for SARS and similar epidemics.

Sanja Novakovic

Image by Gilles San Martin on Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence