Is Your Bat Giving You SARS?

New research from southern China
More
Could these little guys have caused the SARS outbreak? (Wikimedia Commons)

When it broke out among humans in 2002, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) killed 750 people, sickened around 8,000, and drained at least $40 billion from the global economy. Since 2004, no SARS cases have been reported.

New research suggests that’s probably more due to luck than to vigilance. A colony of bats in southern China carry at least seven SARS-like viruses—and at least one of these viruses can infect people directly, according to the study. This is the most compelling evidence yet that SARS may have come directly from bats.
 
This is scary because it means people can pick up these SARS-like viruses—they’re technically coronaviruses, which mainly infect the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts—from any sort of contact with bats. That discovery knocks a step out of the “spillover” process, referring to how a virus leaps from animal to human cells.
 
While we’ve known for a while that bats were probably the SARS host, we didn’t know they gave the virus to humans directly. Past research suggested that people picked up SARS from mongoose-like creatures called civets, a southern Chinese delicacy, when they caught, slaughtered or served them.
 
The lack of an intermediary host makes it much harder to control an outbreak. When the SARS virus was isolated in civets in “wet markets” (where live animals are sold), the Chinese government shuttered the markets. But the new research shows that when another outbreak of a SARS-like virus hits, that might not help much. “It changes the equation” for public health, Peter Daszak, the lead author, told The Wall Street Journal. “We can close all the markets in China and still have a pandemic.”
Jump to comments

Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in China

Just In