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Scientists "99 percent" certain SARS originated in Yunnan bats

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It appears the longstanding and deadly mystery surrounding the origin of the SARS virus has been solved. Virologists have been scouring China for clues since the 2002 outbreak, finally stumbling upon a cave in Yunnan where they believe with near certainty the contagion originated. Only a few questions — very major ones — remain unanswered.

Writing in the journal PLoS Pathogens, scientists Shi Zhengli and Cui Jie of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, explained they singled out bats while conducting their SARS origin research. Specifically, they focused on horseshoe bats, which Australian scientists linked to the virus in 2013. Once the two virologists arrived in Yunnan, they spent five years painstakingly observing populations and collecting tissue and fecal samples.

After surveying dozens of locations, their research team identified one cave in particular, where they found "a single population of horseshoe bats [harboring] virus strains with all the genetic building blocks of the one that jumped to humans in 2002," Nature reports. Out of caution, the location of the cave has not been made public, although researchers say it is less than one kilometer from the nearest town.

Shi and Cui now believe the SARS virus originated in this group of bats, then spread to other animals — such as civets — before jumping to humans. And that is where the mystery remains. Professor Tu Changchu, who peer reviewed the SARS bat origin research, told Nature the results are 99 percent conclusive. He stated that if a method of animal-to-human transmission could have been found, "the evidence would be perfect".

But that crucial link has yet to be discovered. When SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — first emerged in 2002, scientists suspected several animals including bats, civets, monkeys and badgers as being potential culprits. Once communicable in people, the virus infected at least 8,700 people worldwide, proving fatal in 775 cases.

One other major question hangs in the air — How did a virus originate in Yunnan, affect no one in the province, and yet still travel all the way to Guangdong province, where the first infections arose? Tu, the virologist peer reviewer commented that this conundrum "has puzzled me a long time". Thanks to the work of Shi, Cui and their research assistants, the world is one step closer to answering the riddle of SARS and similar viruses. But the key mechanism explaining how and when such infections jump to humans remains an open question.

Editor's note: Special thanks to GoKunming user 'jiangwu' for first bringing our attention to this story in the Forums.

Image: Cashmancuneo

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Uh, how do they know there aren't populations of this or other bats in guizhou, guangxi, guangdong, or hunan that harbor a bat precursor of the human sars virus? Plenty of caves and bats in all of those other provinces. Also, 1% uncertainty is a total failure to explain the transmission mechanism of sars from Yunnan bats to humans? That's a very generous 1%.

i guess you didn't read the guardian article

Yes, I did. How does the Guardian article refute my point that other bat populations in other provinces might be viral reservoirs also? And where in the Guardian article did they explain Yunnan bats to human viral mechanism or have any other supporting evidence besides the genetic viral code that bats from that Yunnan cave started the SARS outbreak in humans?

they dont refute, they confirm both your points. tween the grudian and nature, both have already adressed your points. they say they dont know the exact mechanism from bat to civet to humans but virus in bats has all the nescesary ingredients. also say that there will be other bat caves, but this is the first they have found and is a significant breakthrou

For the transmission, it was probably an infected civet that was illegally caught and shipped to Guangdong for sale in the wild food markets.

Does The Guardian give references to professional journals? The popular press is notoriously unreliable when it comes to anything scientific or scholarly.

So Easier, where is the proof, that these bats in Yunnan were the ones that started it? Again, the Guardian article never provides details this. If your only point is that the viral precursor is found in this group of bats, then duh? An Aussie led group of scientists found it in horseshoe bats prior to this Yunnan discovery. I'm just saying until you can detail the transmission mechanism from Yunnan bats to humans, it could be any bat colony in any of those other provinces I mentioned that were the originators.

i don't think you recognize what you read for what it says

When I find out which bat started all this I'm gonna wring its neck.

whereever there is a bat cave, there is a joker ;-)

I thought bats only came out at night.

@Alex, I think you are right.

I hope people don't take this out on the bats, they're clever animals and do a good job of reducing insects, and hope people stop selling them as food they do have a lot of diseases.and they're too small to eat anyway. I don't understand the point of people eating them, such a waste.

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