The SARS pandemic of 2002-2003 is believed to have been caused by a bat coronavirus (CoV) that first infected a civet and then was passed on to humans. The isolation of a new SARS-like coronavirus from bats suggests that the virus could have directly infected humans.
A single colony of horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus sinicus) in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, was sampled for CoV sequences over a one year period. Of a total of 117 anal swabs or fecal samples collected, 27 (23%) were positive for CoV sequences by polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Seven different SARS-like CoV sequences were identified, including two new ones. For the latter the complete genome sequence was determined, which showed a higher nucleotide sequence identity (95%) with SARS-CoV than had been previously observed before among bat viruses.
One of these new viruses was recovered by infecting monkey cell cultures with one of the PCR-positive samples. This virus could infect human cells and could utilize human angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) as an entry receptor. The infectivity of this virus could also be neutralized with sera collected from seven different SARS patients.
None of the SARS-like coronaviruses previously isolated from bats are able to infect human cells. The reason for this block in replication is that the spike glycoprotein of these bat viruses do not recognize ACE2, the cell receptor for SARS-CoV. SARs-like CoVs isolated from palm civets during the 2002-2003 outbreak have amino acid changes in the viral spike glycoprotein that improve its interaction with ACE2. The civet was therefore believed to be an intermediate host for adaptation of SARS-CoV to humans. The isolation of bat SARS-like CoVs that can bind human ACE2 and replicate in human cells suggests that the virus might have spread directly from bats to humans.
This finding has implications for public health: if SARS-like CoVs that can infect human cells are currently circulating in bats, they have the potential to infect humans and cause another outbreak of disease. The authors believe that the diversity of bat CoVs is higher than we previously knew:
It would therefore not be surprising if further surveillance reveals a broad diversity of bat SL-CoVs that are able to use ACE2, some of which may have even closer homology to SARS-CoV than SL-CoV-WIV1.
Is there any implication of this work for the recently emerged MERS-CoV? Sequences related to MERS-CoV have been found in bats, and given that bats are known to be hosts of a number of viruses that infect humans, it is reasonable to postulate that MERS-CoV originated in bats. So far a 190 fragment of MERS-CoV nucleic acid has been found in a single bat from Saudi Arabia. Identification of the reservoir of MERS-CoV will require duplicating the methods reported in this paper: finding the complete viral genome, and infectious virus, in bats.