Six New Coronaviruses Discovered in Bats

Researchers investigated the presence of coronaviruses in the bat population due to an understanding that coronaviruses can spread following a spillover from animals.

Following the worldwide outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), more attention is being paid to coronaviruses and their sources in our environment. When investigated further, COVID-19, designated severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was discovered to share 96% identity with a bat-borne coronavirus at the whole-genome level.1 The consequent understanding that these viruses can spread through person-to-person contact following a spillover from animals, and perhaps more specifically from bats, led researchers to further investigate the presence of coronaviruses in the bat population.1

A study published in PLOS ONE on April 9 focused on the bat population in Myanmar, a country where land use changes are bringing humans ever closer to wildlife in their environment.1

“Viral pandemics remind us how closely human health is connected to the health of wildlife and the environment,” said lead study author Marc Valitutto, VMD, former wildlife veterinarian with the Smithsonian's Global Health Program. “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.”2

The results of the study helped to shed light on the diversity of coronaviruses in bats, as 3 novel alphacoronaviruses, 3 novel betacoronaviruses, and 1 known alphacoronavirus previously identified in other southeast Asian countries were detected for the first time in Myanmar.1 These results help to support current global efforts to detect, prevent, and respond to infectious diseases that may threaten public health.1

The researchers focused their work on sites in Myanmar where humans are more likely to come into contact with local wildlife for reasons pertaining to changes in land use and development.1 From May 2016 to August 2018, they collected more than 750 saliva and fecal samples from bats in these environments for testing.1

Although the newly discovered coronaviruses are not closely related to SARS CoV-1, Middle East respiratory syndrome, or COVID-19, the researchers suggested that future studies are needed to evaluate their potential for spillover to other species to better understand the risks to human health.1

The authors of the study stated that the results highlight the importance of surveillance for zoonotic diseases in wildlife.2

“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,” said Suzan Murray, DVM, DACZM, director of the Smithsonian's Global Health Program and co-author of the study. “Vigilant surveillance, research and education are the best tools we have to prevent pandemics before they occur.”2

REFERENCES

  • Valitutto MT, Aung O, Tun KYN, et al. Detection of novel coronaviruses in bats in Myanmar. PLOS ONE. 2020;15(4):e0230802. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0230802.
  • Scientists discover six new coronaviruses in bats: No evidence novel coronaviruses pose a risk to human health [news release]. ScienceDaily; April 9, 2020. sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200409141429.htm. Accessed on April 10, 2020.