Scientists have discovered that viruses that have infected horshoe bats in China could cause the next major SARS outbreak. According to a new study published in the journal, PLOS Pathogens, the last SARS epidemic in 2003 was most likely caused by viruses in these bats. Their theory is that the bugs "mixed and matched" genes to develop the coronavirus that caused the illness. These dangerous viruses are still present in these animals, which is why the research team behind the study has warned about potential future SARS outbreaks.
SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, was first discovered in humans in 2002. According to Science News, the first patient was found in Guangdong Province in southern China. The virus eventually infected 8,000 people and killed almost 800. At the time, many thought that the root of the infection came from civet cats that were being sold in animal markets. According to Understanding Evolution, these cats were sometimes eaten. But this new study amplifies the theory that the civet cats were infected by another animal: the horseshoe bat.
Previously, researchers found that the coronaviruses in the bats were different from the one that causes SARS. But the team behind the new study examined the horseshoe bats in a cave in China's Yunnan Province for five years. During that time, they found over 10 new types of SARS-related viruses in this bat species.On further examination of these strains, they found all the genes that could be used as ingredients to make a brand new deadly SARS virus. Virologist Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, confirmed that the viruses in the bats could create a coronavirus that closely resembles the strain that caused the epidemic in 2003.
Certain elements of the viruses' DNA show signs that they are prone to genetic remixing, which gives further insight into how SARS may have developed in the bats in the first place.
There's also a possibility that the viruses could "jump" to human cells, facilitating direct human infection, Science News notes.
"There's a chance that the viruses that exist in these bats could jump to people," says Matthew Frieman, a virologist from the University of Maryland in BaltimoreFrieman. "Whether they will or not is anybody's guess."
Although the bats could become a threat to human life, researchers say that exterminating the species is not a viable solution. That's because bats play an essential ecological role in their habitats, like pollination. They plan to continue to study the species to learn more about how the virus operates and possibly prevent future SARS outbreaks.