Brace yourselves: there’s a fair chance we’re about to see a few alarming headlines. A brand-new coronavirus, related to the virus that causes COVID-19, has been discovered in British horseshoe bats – but at the moment, there’s no reason to worry.
The discovery is described in a paper published on the Research Square preprint server, but it’s important to note that it’s not yet peer-reviewed – that’s due to the rapid response nature of the research.
The virus, dubbed RhGB01 by the researchers who found it, belongs to a family known as sarbecoviruses, which also includes SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the current COVID-19 pandemic, and SARS-CoV, which caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. It has the double distinction of being both the first SARS-related coronavirus to be found in the UK, as well as the first to be found in a lesser horseshoe bat.
“Horseshoe bats are found across Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia and the bats we tested lie at the western extreme of their range,” explained Professor Diana Bell, an expert in emerging zoonotic diseases from the University of East Anglia's School of Biological Sciences. While the closest relatives of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, have so far been found in horseshoe bats in places like Laos and China, this finding “suggests their more widespread presence,” Bell said.
“Our findings highlight the need for robust genotype testing for these types of viruses in bat populations around the world,” she said. “And it raises an important question about what other animals carry these types of viruses.”
Now, you may remember we said there’s no reason to worry, so here’s the good news: the newly discovered virus is “not a threat to humans,” according to the Zoological Society of London’s Professor Andrew Cunningham. Unlike SARS-CoV-2, whose ability to infect humans is so good that it’s spawned a few conspiracy theories over the past two years, RhGB01 is “not compatible with being able to infect human cells,” he said, as its receptor binding domain – that is, the part of the virus that attaches to host cells and infects them – is too different from SARS-CoV-2 to pose a threat.
That may be one reason why it’s taken this long to discover the new virus. It’s “almost certainly” been in the bats for “a very long time – probably many thousands of years,” Bell explained, but “we didn't know about it before because this is the first time that such tests have been carried out in UK bats.”
“We already know that there are different coronaviruses in many other mammal species too,” she said. “This is a case of ‘seek and you will find’.”
But there is one scenario in which the new virus could turn into a big problem: if it mutates. The researchers warned this could happen if a COVID-19-positive human passed the virus to a bat infected with RhGB01 – such a bat would be “a melting pot for virus mutation,” Cunningham said.
“If a bat with the RhGB01 infection we found were to become infected with SARS-CoV-2, there is a risk that these viruses would hybridize and a new virus emerge [that could] … infect people,” he explained. “Preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to bats, and hence reducing opportunities for virus mutation, is critical with the current global mass vaccination campaign against this virus.”
Bell agreed. “Anyone coming into contact with bats or their droppings, such as bat rescuers or cavers, should wear appropriate PPE,” she cautioned, “in order to reduce the risk of a mutation occurring.”
The finding, the researchers say, provides important insight into the precautions needed when interacting with wild animals – even if it’s to help or rescue them.
“A bat rehabilitator looking after a rescued animal and infecting it with SARS-CoV2 … would provide an opportunity for genetic recombination if it is already carrying another sarbecovirus,” explained Bell. “We need to apply stringent regulations globally for anyone handling bats and other wild animals.”