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British Bats Could Harbor Next Pandemic Coronavirus, Study Finds

Researchers urge closer monitoring and conservation efforts to prevent zoonotic spillover

British bats could be harboring a coronavirus that will trigger the next pandemic, according to new research. The furry mammals may hold the key to avoiding future COVID-style health crises, say scientists. An analysis of 16 of the 17 species native to the UK found they warrant closer monitoring for prevention measures. It will help identify contagious illnesses with potential for being passed to humans. The finding is based on an analysis of 48 faecal samples. One, from the lesser horseshoe bat, was able to bind to a ‘gateway’ enzyme ACE2 which the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to enter human cells. COVID-19 is believed to have emerged in horseshoe bats in China.

‘’Working with a network of conservationists and bat rehabilitators has been most fruitful in documenting the diversity of coronaviruses that is present in British bats, and which had been so far overlooked. This collaborative work forms the basis for future zoonotic surveillance and conservation efforts given the importance that bats play in our ecosystems” said Professor Vincent Savolainen, lead author, Imperial College London.

‘’Zoonotic diseases passed from animals will become more frequent as we have more contact with wildlife due to habitat destruction and climate change. In many parts of the world, we have decent surveillance of the pathogens circulating in humans and domestic animals but not so much in wildlife. Increased surveillance should improve public health preparedness and food security, and also be beneficial for biodiversity conservation” said professor Francois Balloux.

Infection requires the virus to be able to infect human cells. To cause an outbreak, it must then be able to spread. Many illnesses can pass to small groups of people in direct contact with the host animal without progressing further. Genetic investigations are crucial to identify the most dangerous, the researchers explained.

Viruses are more likely to spill over from wild animals when they are brought in closer contact with humans. CLEMENT FALIZE VIA UNSPLASH. 

Bats are the second most diverse order of mammals – with around 1,300 species. They are widely spread across the globe and are only absent in a few isolated islands. It means they can harbor a wide range of possible pathogens. Bat virus surveys have been conducted in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

However, in the UK, detailed genetic studies have been disregarded beyond European lyssaviruses that cause rabies. The team identified two alpha-coronaviruses, a MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) member and a sarbecovirus, a group that includes SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19. They found neither was capable of ‘spilling over’ into humans after creating ‘pseudoviruses’ which carry whichever protein the virus uses to bind to host cells.

A sarbecovirus found in the lesser horseshoe bat was able to bind to ACE2.  It could enter human cells in a lab when there was an overabundance of the protein, suggesting it would need further adaptations to infect humans. Viruses are more likely to spill over from wild animals when they are brought in closer contact with humans.Land-use changes across the world are linked with an increased probability of zoonotic crossover.

Maintaining bat conservation efforts and minimizing habitat destruction could therefore help prevent zoonotic spillover, alongside a monitoring program that regularly screens for potential pathogens.

“New techniques such as the one used in this paper are increasing our understanding and highlight the importance of protecting nature. This work provides a great example of researchers and conservationists working together for the wider good. Beyond reducing the chances of zoonosis, we know that protecting wildlife brings many other benefits. From providing ecosystem services such as controlling insects that damage crops through to the simple joy of watching bats on a summer’s night, bats are a vital part of our natural heritage,” said Lisa Worledge of the Bat Conservation Trust.

Edited by Eunice Anyango Oyule and Judy J. Rotich

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