While experts and governments are still trying to find the true origin of the current COVID-19 pandemic, a group of researchers studying bats in Myanmar discovered six new types of coronavirus -- unrelated to the pandemic-causing SARS-CoV-2.
The finding could help to understand the relevance of coronaviruses in bats and know more about the viruses in general.
Historically, bats have been linked to highly pathogenic viruses that can pose a serious threat to human health if happen to make the jump to humans. This was the case with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that recently emerged. Nevertheless, the newly discovered viruses are not closely related to SARS, MERS or even the COVID-19, according to the researchers, which will now work to evaluate their risk to human health.
Experts still aren't sure what is the actual origin of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Since the virus is so similar to other viruses found in bats, it is likely that that's where it originated, but so far, no smoking gun has been found yet. In order to confirm this theory, researchers need to isolate a live virus in a suspected species to correctly prove the source, and this hasn't been done just yet.
Due to their capacity to fly, bats can move in large numbers from different areas and host diverse pathogens. They are increasingly recognized by researchers as the natural reservoirs of viruses of public health concerns such as SARS and MERS.
"Viral pandemics remind us how closely human health is connected to the health of wildlife and the environment," said Marc Valitutto, lead author, in a statement. "Worldwide, humans are interacting with wildlife with increasing frequency, so the more we understand about these viruses in animals the better we can reduce their pandemic potential."
The research was done through a project called PREDICT, focused on discovering and understanding better pathogens that could spread from animals to humans. The team detected the new viruses thanks to the biosurveillance of animals and people.
Valitutto and his team specifically chose Myanmar as a research destination, as humans are in contact with local wildlife because of recent changes in land use and development.
The researchers collected over 750 samples of saliva and feces from bats in the area from 2016 to 2018. The following step was comparing the samples collected to already known coronaviruses, identifying the new six viruses.
They also found a coronavirus that had previously been discovered in Southeast Asia but not in Myanmar.
The researchers estimate that there are thousands of coronaviruses more that could be found in bats. That's why they believe the results will be highly important for future studies on bats across the world, hoping to understand better the potential of viral threats to humans.
Nevertheless, the importance of bats to ecosystems and human communities while being the natural reservoirs of many zoonotic pathogens presents a challenge for disease control. Bats provide critical services such as seed dispersal and pollination.
"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, co-author of the study, in a statement. "Vigilant surveillance, research and education are the best tools we have to prevent pandemics before they occur."
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.