Scientists in Myanmar have discovered six new types of coronavirus in bats. While the viruses are part of the same family as the SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), the six new types are not closely genetically related to SARS-Cov-2, SARS, or MERS.
The new types of coronavirus were identified when researchers were studying bats in Myanmar for a government-funded program that’s called PREDICT. The program is used to find infectious diseases that could possibly be transferred from animals to humans. They analyzed hundreds of samples of saliva and feces (also called guano which is used to make fertilizer) from 464 bats and at least 11 different species between the years 2016 and 2018. The samples came from bats living in three different locations around Myanmar where humans often get into close contact with them.
In their study (which can be read in full here), the researchers wrote in part, “Two of these sites also featured popular cave systems where people were routinely exposed to bats through guano harvesting, religious practices and ecotourism.”
The genetic sequences of the hundreds of samples were compared with the genomes of coronaviruses that have already been identified. The new types of the virus were identified in three species of bats: the Greater Asiatic yellow house bat (Scotophilus heathii) which PREDICT-CoV-90 was identified; the wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bat (Chaerephon plicatus) which was host to PREDICT-CoV-47 and -82; and Horsfield's leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros larvatus) which contained PREDICT-CoV-92, -93 and -96.
Bats have been named as the most likely source of the COVID-19 transmission to humans and it’s been predicted that thousands more types of coronavirus that have yet to be discovered could be living in them.
But don’t panic just yet, as more research needs to be done in order to understand fully how – or if – these new types of coronavirus could be transferred to other species and how/if they could affect the health of humans. Suzan Murray, who is the director of the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program as well as the co-author of the study, said, “Many coronaviruses may not pose a risk to people, but when we identify these diseases early on in animals, at the source, we have a valuable opportunity to investigate the potential threat,” adding, “Vigilant surveillance, research and education are the best tools we have to prevent pandemics before they occur.”
Marc Valitutto, who is a former wildlife veterinarian with the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program and the lead author of the study, weighed in by stating, “Worldwide, humans are interacting with wildlife with increasing frequency, so the more we understand about these viruses in animals — what allows them to mutate and how they spread to other species –– the better we can reduce their pandemic potential.”
In other bat news, the United States has recommended that all testing of bats be suspended in order to prevent coronavirus from spreading to North American species and ultimately causing another wave of the virus to hit the public.
In a statement, a Fish and Wildlife spokesperson told the Washington Post, “We know that many mammals are susceptible to infection by a diversity of coronaviruses,” adding, “What is not known is whether the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has the potential to infect, or cause illness in, North American wildlife, including bats.”
There have already been several reports of humans passing the virus on to animals, specifically cats and dogs, as well as a Malayan tiger that was more than likely infected by an asymptomatic worker at the Bronx Zoo. And since bats in the United States have been suffering through white-nose syndrome since 2006 – which has killed over 5.5 million bats – researchers have to be careful not to infect them with coronavirus as they may be more susceptible to catching it.