Six previously undescribed strains of coronaviruses have been detected in Myanmar bat populations. Though it is unclear whether the new strains are capable of jumping between species or infecting humans, researchers note that the viruses are not closely related to coronaviruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), or COVID-19.
The findings suggest that it is likely there are thousands of coronaviruses present in bats – many of which have not yet been discovered, according to the PLOS One.
An international team of scientists operating under the PREDICT Project, a US-let effort to detect and discover new viruses that have the potential to become a pandemic, discovered the virus strains in Linno Cave. Bats, in particular, have a unique lifestyle that makes them a natural reservoir of viruses of public concern.
From May 2016 to August 2018, researchers identified various bat species and collected more than 750 saliva and fecal samples to test them for zoonotic diseases and viruses. The samples were then compared against samples from people and livestock near the cave, as well as to other known coronaviruses. The data identified six new strains of coronaviruses, in particular, three new alphacoronaviruses, three new betacoronaviruses, and one previously described alphacoronavirus that was found for the first time in Myanmar.
“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, director of the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program and 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.”
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some of which can cause illness in animals and very few that can jump between species, as was the case with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 respiratory disease. Coronaviruses are part of the many virus strains globally that are under biosurveillance in order to determine what emerging diseases have a higher likelihood of impacting human health and financial stability. As many as three-quarters of infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from animals to humans, and pose an increasing threat as growing human populations more frequently interact with wildlife. Bats are of particular interest given their ability to fly for prolonged periods of time and travel great distances.
"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's Global Health Program and lead author of the study, in a statement. "Worldwide, 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 findings provide insight that could help guide policies on ways to reduce disease transmission to keep both bats and humans safe. Future studies will determine the potential for transmission across species to understand the broader risks to human health.