September 10, 2005

Genetic Relative of SARS Found in Bats

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Scientists in China say they have found a genetic relative of the human SARS virus in a local species of bat, raising the possibility that the bats were a primary source of the disease when it was transmitted to humans.

After SARS first became a threat in 2002, research suggested the virus may have come from the civet, a catlike wild animal eaten by people in southern China. Thousands were seized from Chinese wildlife markets and slaughtered.

The new research raises the possibility that the bats may have given the civets the SARS virus or given it directly to humans. The article suggests two possible means of direct transmission to humans: Bat meat, considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, and bat feces, used in traditional Chinese medicine.

It is unclear where the bats got the virus.

The research, to be published in an article next week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was released early at the request of the author. The research was performed by Kwok-yung Yuen of the University of Hong Kong and his colleagues.

The researchers call for continued surveillance of the bats to "assess their potential threats to human health."

Researchers examined several wild animals in the countryside near Hong Kong and found a virus much like the SARS in civets and humans in 40 percent of the Chinese horseshoe bats they captured. The bats showed no obvious signs of the virus.

SARS, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome, emerged in southern China in late 2002. It has killed 774 people worldwide - 349 of them in mainland China.

More than 8,000 people were sickened around the world before it was brought under control when authorities enforced quarantines, isolated patients and restricted travel. Health officials remain worried it could spread again.