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Might Understanding SARS Help Researchers to Better Understand FIP in Cats?


A decade after the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic, scientists have found the strongest evidence to date it originated in Chinese horseshoe bats.The 2002-2003 SARS pandemic was one of the most significant public health events in recent history. This is significant to cats because SARS is a product of a coronavirus. Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) in cats is caused by a funky mutation of the feline corona virus transforming the otherwise benign virus into a deadly immune mediate disease. Is it possible that the more we learn about what causes SARS, the more we can learn about FIP? Many experts think so.

A team of mostly Chinese researchers reports in the journal Nature they have isolated two new viruses that are closely related to the SARS virus. “They’re certainly the closest thing we’ve seen. They’re 95 per cent the same as SARS,” says Australian team member, Gary Crameri, a virologist at CSIRO‘s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong.

SARS first broke out in in China, which involved the sale of live animals – often from the wild. While civet cats (not true cats) were first thought to be the reservoir, researchers soon discovered that these animals were only infected around markets. Meanwhile, sadly, some people blamed domestic cats, unaware they are unrelated to civets. Tragically, cats in China were then killed as a result – when it turns out domestic cats had totally nothing to do with SARS, and now we know civets likely weren’t the source either.

Scientists knew all along better than target domestic cats, and began to look at other wildlife species, including bats. A number of studies that found genetic evidence that cave-dwelling microbats, sold as a food source in wet markets, were harboring SARS-like coronaviruses.

This all gets really geeky technical. But here it goes: Since these SARS-like viruses do not bind to ACE2, this made researchers wonder whether SARS really came from bats, or whether it needed an intermediate host to convert the virus into a form that could infect humans.

But exhaustive sampling of bats by researchers has now found two viruses, which look like SARS and bind to ACE2, in horseshoe bats from Yunnan province. And that cells from humans, mice and bats, which did not express ACE2, were not infected by the new viruses but once the cells were modified to express ACE2, the viruses did infect them.The researchers also found that the new viruses also had exactly the same proteins used by the SARS virus to bind to ACE2 in host cells.

While SARS is now under control in East Asia, another emerging issue, a coronavirus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is currently causing problems.

Again, the hope is that interest in corona viruses in people will spark more interest in studying the feline corona virus. And as researchers learn more about corona viruses and how they mutate, the by-product of that knowledge offer at least potential to help us to understand the feline corona virus and FIP. Or perhaps understanding the process of the corona virus in cats can help to understand a similar virus in people. The National Institutes of Health could (and should) support such research, perhaps working in conjunction with the Winn Feline Foundation, the world’s most significant funder of  FIP (and therefore the feline corona virus).


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