Bats and SARS

A number of reports appeared in 2002 linking bats to the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in the Far East, for example this one from BBC News.

The SARS virus comes from the coronavirus family. Coronaviruses are common in people and mammals but rarely result in anything more serious than a cold. But the SARS virus infected 8,000 people worldwide and resulted in 800 deaths. Although not as infectious as first feared, strict quarantine regulations caused serious economic damage.

The virus was spread to humans from civets (a type of mongoose) which can be bought from live markets or eaten in wildlife restaurants in China. However, civets show no immunity to the virus and research found no evidence of SARS in civets in the wild. It is therefore likely that the civets caught the virus while at the live markets and spread it quickly between themselves. With the large number of varied species present in the packed, busy markets, the opportunity for spillover of disease from one species to another is highly likely.

Researchers therefore investigated what other animals at the markets could have introduced the virus. They investigated over 100 species and found many that carry coronaviruses, but the closest genetic match was found in the Chinese Horseshoe Bat. Bats are served as a delicacy in China and their droppings are used for medicinal purposes. The SARS virus cannot be transmitted from bats to humans, but the presence of so many other animals in the live markets allowed the virus to jump to an intermediate "amplifier host". Similar jumps have been recorded in previous virus outbreaks where a harmless virus has jumped to an amplifier host, usually as a result of human activity, before infecting humans with tragic consequences.

The UN's World Health Organisation considers the ingestion of bats and their droppings as "high risk" activities, but concedes that the Chinese would be reluctant to change their traditions. The recommendation is that live bats should be kept out of these markets until the transmission path is fully understood.

There are 69 different species of Horseshoe Bat which are found throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Two species occur in Britain, although their presence is now restricted to South Wales and South West England following serious declines in their populations over the last 100 years. Only one Horseshoe Bat has ever been confirmed present in Buckinghamshire. Bats in Europe rarely come into direct contact with people. Furthermore, disturbing any bats in their roosts, catching bats or trading in live or dead bats or any part of a bat are all prohibited in the UK by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

If you find a bat in your house or an injured bat outdoors, avoid contact with it by wearing gloves or placing a box over it. Please contact the North Bucks Bat Group or the Bat Conservation Trust if you have any doubts.

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