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Molecular epidemiology, evolution and phylogeny of SARS coronavirus

Shortly after its emergence in southern China in 2002/2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) was confirmed to be the cause of SARS. Subsequently, SARS-related CoVs (SARSr-CoVs) were found in palm civets from live animal markets in Guangdong and in various horseshoe bat species, which were believed to be the ultimate reservoir of SARSr-CoV. Till November 2018, 339 SARSr-CoV genomes have been sequenced, including 274 from human, 18 from civets and 47 from bats [mostly from Chinese horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus sinicus), n = 30; and greater horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum), n = 9]. The human SARS-CoVs and civet SARSr-CoVs were collected in 2003/2004, while bat SARSr-CoVs were continuously isolated in the past 13 years even after the cessation of the SARS epidemic. SARSr-CoVs belong to the subgenus Sarbecovirus (previously lineage B) of genus Betacoronavirus and occupy a unique phylogenetic position. Overall, it is observed that the SARSr-CoV genomes from bats in Yunnan province of China possess the highest nucleotide identity to those from civets. It is evident from both multiple alignment and phylogenetic analyses that some genes of a particular SARSr-CoV from bats may possess higher while other genes possess much lower nucleotide identity to the corresponding genes of SARSr-CoV from human/civets, resulting in the shift of phylogenetic position in different phylogenetic trees. Our current model on the origin of SARS is that the human SARS-CoV that caused the epidemic in 2002/2003 was probably a result of multiple recombination events from a number of SARSr-CoV ancestors in different horseshoe bat species.

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