Don’t misrepresent link between bats and SARS

University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall, UK.

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Department of Biology, University of Western Ontario, Canada.

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Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Canada.

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Department of Mammalogy, American Museum of Natural History, New York City, New York, USA.

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Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, Austin, Texas, USA.

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We find your report on bats and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) sensationalist and misleading (Nature 552, 15–16, 2017). The important work it discusses does not claim to pinpoint conclusively the source of the SARS outbreak (B. Hu et al. PLoS Pathog. 13, e1006698; 2017), as implied by your “smoking gun” metaphor. The rapid rate of evolution of RNA viruses means that SARS could have arisen in one of many areas. Thus, your inference that the strain “could easily” have originated in this bat population is, in our view, unjustified.

Inflammatory statements about bats and disease have led to culling and roost destruction, compromising conservation efforts (K. J. Olival EcoHealth 13, 6–8; 2016). Accurate reporting of information on SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, Ebola and other emerging diseases is crucial for controlling outbreaks and for preventing unnecessary deaths of wild animals.

Viral spillover occurs when humans and domestic animals come into direct contact with wild animals and their pathogens. Public education, comprehensive surveillance and considered interventions can all help to protect public health. The closure of markets selling live birds has already reduced the activity of avian influenza viruses, and could likewise curtail the spillover of mammalian viruses.

Nature 553, 281 (2018)

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