[BEIJING] A SARS-like virus has been found in wild bats, say researchers at the University of Hong Kong.
Because some Chinese people eat bats and use their droppings in traditional medicine, the scientists urge caution in handling the animals.
Kwok-yung Yuen and colleagues published their findings last week (9 September) in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
They examined 59 wild Chinese horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus sinensis) and found that 23 had a virus similar to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).
SARS was first identified in 2002 in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, near Hong Kong. By July 2003, it had killed 774 people worldwide, and infected a further 8,000.
In late 2003, Chinese health officials tracked the infection to caged civets in live-animal markets in Guangdong, which suggested that the mammals were a 'reservoir' for the SARS virus.
The researchers say that genetic analysis suggests that the form of SARS found in civets and the related virus in bats probably had a common ancestor.
However, the researchers could not determine how the bats were originally infected or whether this species transmitted the SARS virus to other mammals, including civets.
Bats harbour several viruses that can harm people, including rabies, lyssavirus, and Hendra and Nipah viruses.
This led the researchers to suspect that bats might carry the SARS virus. But they say that because the bats are unlikely to bite people, they are not likely to pass on the infection.Nevertheless, they warn that the animals should be kept under close surveillance.
The warning came in the same week that a group of senior infectious disease experts called for a global network to monitor emerging diseases in animals that could threaten people (see Health experts call for global animal surveillance).
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi10.1073pnas.0506735102 (2005)