Scientists have discovered that two new coronaviruses found in Chinese horseshoe bats are a close relative of the SARS-coronavirus. This is according to a new study published in the journal Nature.
According to the researchers from the US, China and Australia, viruses similar to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus (CoV) have previously been reported from bats in China, Europe and Africa, but the bats have been disregarded as a direct progenitor of the virus due to lack of supporting evidence.
But the researchers say these most recent findings provide "the strongest evidence to date" that the SARS coronavirus originated from bats.
To reach their findings, the researchers collected 117 individual throat and fecal swabs or fresh fecal samples from a colony of Chinese rufous horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus sinicus) from the Yunnan Province in China over a 12-month period.
Researchers have discovered two coronaviruses in Chinese horseshoe bats that are a close relative of the SARS-coronavirus, and are able to use the same human receptor.
The swabs and samples were tested for genetic sequences that may reveal the presence of SARS-CoV or SARS-like CoV.
Bat SARS coronavirus 'can use human receptor'
From the analysis, the researchers identified an array of SARS-like Coronaviruses, with two of them - RsSHC014 and Rs3367 - appearing more closely linked to the SARS-CoV than any other bat CoV previously identified.
Furthermore, the researchers found that these two SARS-like CoVs discovered in the bats are able to use the same human receptor as the SARS-CoV - called ACE2 - to infect cells, meaning they pose a risk for human infection.
Explaining their findings, the researchers say:
"Our findings suggest that the diversity of bat CoVs is substantially higher than that previously reported.
In this study we were able to demonstrate the circulation of at least seven different strains of SARS-like CoVs within a single colony of Rhinolophus sinicus during a 12-month period."
"Our results - in addition to the recent demonstration of MERS-CoV in a Saudi Arabian bat, and of bat CoVs closely related to MERS-CoV in China, Africa, Europe and North America - suggest that bat coronaviruses remain a substantial global threat to public health."
Bats have indeed developed a reputation for harboring viruses. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) may have originated in bats.
A study from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year also revealed evidence of an influenza type A virus in Guatemalan fruit bats.
Study highlights 'importance' of pathogen discovery programs
The researchers note that their findings emphasize the importance of "pathogen discovery programs" that target high-risk wildlife groups in emerging disease areas:
"This study demonstrates the public health importance of pathogen discovery programs targeting wildlife that aim to identify the 'known unknowns' - previously unknown viral strains closely related to known pathogens.
These programs, focused on specific high-risk wildlife groups and hotspots of disease emergence, may be a critical part of future global strategies to predict, prepare for, and prevent pandemic emergence."
Medical News Today reported earlier this year on research that detailed key differences between the MERS coronavirus and SARS.