Amid the growing calls to probe into the origins of Covid-19, Chinese researchers have found a new batch of coronaviruses in bats. One of them, Rhinolophus pusillus virus, maybe genetically the second-closest to the Covid-19 virus till now, the Chinese researchers have said.
The discoveries in a single, small region of Yunnan province in China indicate just how many coronaviruses can exist in bats and how many have the potential to spread to people and a wide range of domestic and wild animals, including pigs, cattle, mice, cats, dogs, and chickens.
In early 2020, a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was identified as the causative agent of a pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, China, that eventually turned into a global pandemic, killing lakhs of people.
The researchers collected 283 fecal samples, 109 oral swabs and 19 urine samples from small, forest-dwelling bats in a tropical botanical garden and adjacent areas in a county in Yunnan province between May 2019 and November 2020.
In a report published in the journal Cell, the Chinese researchers from Shandong University said, “In total, we assembled 24 novel coronavirus genomes from different bat species, including four SARS-CoV-2 like coronaviruses.”
The Chinese researchers said one of the viruses was very similar, genetically to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s causing the ongoing pandemic.
“It would be the closest strain to SARS-CoV-2 except for genetic differences on the spike protein, the knob-like structure that the virus uses when attaching to cells,” they said.
The researchers wrote: “Together with the SARS-CoV-2 related virus collected from Thailand in June 2020, these results clearly demonstrate that viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 continue to circulate in bat populations, and in some regions might occur at a relatively high frequency.”
Now researchers are trying to locate the original source of SARS-CoV-2. Although bats are the likely source, the researchers said it’s quite likely that the virus infected an intermediary animal. The SARS virus that caused the 2002-2004 outbreak was traced to an animal called a civet cat.