Bats and a range of other mammal groups are natural carriers of coronaviruses. To better understand this family of viruses, which includes the specific type behind COVID-19, scientists compared 36 bat species. Their findings could help build public health programs.
Bats do a lot of good for the world—they pollinate plants, eat disease-carrying insects, and help disperse seeds that regenerate tropical forest trees. They are also natural carriers of coronaviruses.
To better understand this very diverse family of viruses, which includes the specific coronavirus behind COVID-19, scientists compared the different kinds of coronaviruses living in 36 bat species from the western Indian Ocean and nearby areas of Africa.
They found that different groups of bats at the genus and in some cases family level had their own unique strains of coronavirus, revealing that bats and coronaviruses have been evolving together for millions of years, according to a statement.
“We found that there’s a deep evolutionary history between bats and coronaviruses,” says Steve Goodman, MacArthur Field Biologist at Chicago’s Field Museum. “Developing a better understanding of how coronaviruses evolved can help us build public health programs in the future.”
A lot of people use “coronavirus” as a synonym for “COVID-19”, the kind of coronavirus causing the current pandemic. However, there are a vast number of types of different coronaviruses, potentially as many as bat species, and most of them are unknown to be transferred to humans and pose no known threat.
The coronaviruses carried by the bats studied in this paper are different from the one behind COVID-19, but by learning about coronaviruses in bats in general, we can better understand the virus affecting us today, explains the statement. The new study examines the genetic relationships between different strains of coronaviruses and the animals they live in, which sets the stage for a better understanding of the transfer of viruses from animals to humans.
Learning how different strains of coronavirus evolved could be key for preventing future coronavirus outbreaks. “Before you can actually figure out programs for public health and try to deal with the possible shift of certain diseases to humans, or from humans to animals, you have to know what’s out there. This is kind of the blueprint,” says Goodman.
Photo: imago stock&people