Is coronavirus found in British bats a threat?
Scientists say the winged mammals may have harboured the virus for thousands of years
News that a new coronavirus similar to the one that causes Covid-19 has been found in British bats may not be welcomed by many members of the public.
But ecology student Ivana Murphy, from the University of East Anglia (UEA), made just such a discovery while “collecting bat droppings as part of her final-year dissertation”, reports The Times.
As the newspaper notes, “It is the first time a sarbecovirus - of which Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid, is one type - has been found in bats in the UK”.
The 22-year-old student used traps and nets to capture more than 50 lesser horseshoe bats in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Monmouthshire in order to collect the faecal samples, before freeing the winged mammals.
The droppings were then sent to Public Health England scientists for viral analysis, which revealed that one sample contained a novel coronavirus. The virus, detected through genome sequencing, has been named “RhGB01” by the UEA team researching the discovery, says the university’s website.
Professor Diana Bell, an expert in emerging zoonotic diseases from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said that the bats “almost certainly have harboured this virus for a very long time - probably many thousands of years”.
“We didn’t know about it before because this is the first time that such tests have been carried out in UK bats,” she continued.
“We already know that there are different coronaviruses in many other mammal species too. This is a case of ‘seek and you will find’.”
A danger to the public?
The UAE website says that Murphy wore “full PPE” while collecting the bat droppings and was “regularly tested for Covid-19 to avoid any chance of cross-contamination”.
And “there is no evidence that this novel virus has been transmitted to humans, or that it could in future, unless it mutates”, according to the experts.
Underlining that message, Professor Andrew Cunningham, from the Zoological Society of London, explained that “this UK virus is not a threat to humans because the receptor-binding domain (RBD) - the part of the virus that attaches to host cells to infect them - is not compatible with being able to infect human cells”.
However, he added, “the problem is that any bat harbouring a Sars-like coronavirus can act as a melting pot for virus mutation”.
So if people were to pass Covid-19 to bats, the virus could potentially combine with the newly discovered RhGB01 to form a new virus that could infect humans.
Given that risk, “we need to apply stringent regulations globally for anyone handling bats and other wild animals”, said UEA’s Professor Bell.
Researchers believe sarbecovirus are probably present in other species of Rhinolophidae, the family of bats to which horseshoe bats belong, as well as in many other mammal species.
“Our findings highlight the need for robust testing for these types of viruses in bat populations around the world,” say the UEA team.
But in the meantime, bats should not be made to suffer because of the coronavirus link, adds the student who made the new discovery, which is outlined in a paper on the Research Square platform for study reports that have not completed peer review.
“More than anything, I’m worried that people may suddenly start fearing and persecuting bats, which is the last thing I would want and would be unnecessary. As like all wildlife, if left alone they do not pose any threat,” Murphy said.