A group of researchers from the Smithsonian Institution's Global Health Program have discovered the existence of six new coronaviruses in bats. These coronaviruses are not related to SARS-CoV-2 aka COVID-19. Nor are they related to others such as SARS CoV-1 and MERS-CoV.
The study, which has been published in PLOS ONE, is the result of a biomonitoring study carried out in Myanmar as part of the Predict project. This initiative, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), aims to understand and monitor which pathogens can pass from animals to humans.
The scientists focused their work on sites in Myanmar where humans are most likely to come into contact with local wildlife. From May 2016 to August 2018, they collected more than 750 saliva and faeces samples from bats in the area. What they found were six unknown coronaviruses and one that, although it had been found in Southeast Asia, had not occurred in Myanmar. Experts believe that bats can carry thousands of coronaviruses but that many of them have not been discovered.
"Viral pandemics remind us how closely human health is connected to the health of wildlife and the environment," said Marc Valitutto, a former wildlife veterinarian with the Smithsonian Institution's Global Health Program and lead author of the study. "Around the world, 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.”
The authors of this study say these findings underscore the importance of monitoring zoonotic diseases (which can be transmitted between animals and humans) as they occur in wildlife. The results will guide future surveillance of bat populations to better detect potential viral threats to public health.
MERS-Cov is a coronavirus that produces the so-called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and it was first detected in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. SARS CoV-1, on the other hand, is a coronavirus that produces a serious respiratory disease (SARS) which, in 2003, led to a global outbreak. The first incident was reported in February in Asia and within months, the disease had landed in North America, South America, Europe and the rest of Asia. WHO estimated that 8,098 people were ill and 774 died worldwide from SARS that year. Coronaviruses are also the cause of the common cold.
"Many coronaviruses may not pose a risk to people, but when we identify these diseases early in animals at the source, we have a valuable opportunity to investigate the potential threat," said Suzan Murray, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Global Health Program and co-author of the study. "Surveillance, research and education are the best tools we have to prevent pandemics before they occur.
References: Marc T. Valitutto et al. Detection of novel coronaviruses in bats in Myanmar, PLOS ONE (2020). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pon.0230802