A virus found in Chinese horseshoe bats has the potential to jump directly to humans and cause a SARS-like outbreak, warn researchers, including one of Indian-origin.
SARS, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome, is a serious form of pneumonia that was first seen in an outbreak in 2002 and resulted in 8,000 cases and nearly 800 deaths.
The new virus, known as WIV1-CoV, directly binds to the same human receptor as the SARS strain, the study said.
"The capacity of this group of viruses to jump into humans is greater than we originally thought," said the study’s first author Vineet Menachery from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the US.
"While other adaptations may be required to produce an epidemic, several viral strains circulating in bat populations have already overcome the barrier of replication in human cells and suggest reemergence as a distinct possibility," Menachery noted.
The researchers worked with SARS-like coronavirus sequences isolated from Chinese horseshoe bats, where SARS originated.
Based on the sequences, they reconstructed the viruses to evaluate their potential to infect human cells and in mice.
They found that the newly identified virus could bind to the same receptors as SARS coronavirus.
They also showed that the virus readily and efficiently replicated in cultured human airway tissues, suggesting an ability to jump directly to humans.
"To be clear, this virus may never jump to humans, but if it does, WIV1-CoV has the potential to seed a new outbreak with significant consequences for both public health and the global economy," Menachery pointed out.
The findings appeared online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
SARS’ mortality rate can range from less than one percent in patients below 24 years old to more than 50 percent in patients aged 60 and older, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The researchers believe that WIV1-CoV has the potential to induce similar results with proper adaptation to humans.
The research team also found that antibodies developed to treat SARS were effective in both human and animal tissue samples against WIV1-CoV, providing a potent treatment option if there were an outbreak.