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10th Feb 2022

Origins of virus responsible for covid-19 traced to horseshoe bats

Charlie Herbert

SARS-CoV-2 traced 'unambiguously' back to bats

Research found that the virus could be ‘unambiguously traced to horseshoe bats’

The origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for covid-19, has been traced back to horseshoe bats, according to new research.

However scientists said “dramatically” more research is need to pinpoint the creature that passed the virus to humans.

They also said there is “undoubtedly” a virus very closely related to SARS-CoV-2 still present somewhere in the wild.

The study, led by the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, looked at the evolutionary history of SARS-CoV-2 and how it had gone through various recombinations.

Scientists stated that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 “can be unambiguously traced to horseshoe bats, genus Rhinolophus.”

Professor David L Robertson, senior author on the study, said: “Our analysis highlights the need for dramatically more wildlife sampling to pinpoint the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2 and understand more fully the risk of infection of humans by viruses like these across China and Southeast Asia.

“The finding of bat coronaviruses that can so readily use the human – and other mammals’ – ACE2 receptor without having to undergo any significant evolutionary change underscores the inevitability of future spillovers.”

The research analysed a number of related viruses in bats. They found that they shared specific points in their genetic material with SARS-CoV-2, suggesting that earlier versions of the virus were frequently transmitted among the animals. When a bat was infected by two coronaviruses at the same time, the virus would change and recombine.

Spyros Lytras, first author of the study said: “Recombination is a mechanism seen in many viruses, where related viruses can swap bits of their genetic material when they find themselves infecting the same cell, resulting in a new mosaic virus.

“It is clear that recombination is a defining feature of SARS-related coronaviruses and essential to account for when examining the viruses’ evolution.”

The research paper stated: “An urgent question relating to the prevention of another emergence, is where in China or South East Asia is the SARS-CoV-2 progenitor located (our analysis shows this is not necessarily Yunnan); which bat or other animal species are harbouring sarbecoviruses and linked to this what is the risk of future spillover events?

“There is undoubtedly a virus highly related to SARS-CoV-2 still present somewhere in the wild.

“The best we can do is maximise the probability that future sampling efforts will uncover that host species or subspecies.”

The study is published in Genome Biology and Evolution.

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