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UK Bat Study Finds Coronaviruses With Potential to Develop Into Human Pathogens

NEW YORK – Bat species in the UK carry new and known coronavirus species, including several sarbecoviruses from the same subgenus as SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, according to new research by investigators at University College London's UCL Genetics Institute, the Francis Crick Institute, Imperial College London, and elsewhere.

As they reported in Nature Communications on Tuesday, the researchers, led by senior author Vincent Savolainen at Imperial College London, relied on deep RNA sequencing to screen for coronaviruses in four dozen fecal samples picked up by members of a bat rehabilitation and conservation network in the UK. Together, the samples came from 16 of the bat species known to reside in the UK, representing all but one bat species known to breed there.

Using RNA sequences from a half-dozen of the bat species, the team put together five partial viral contigs and nine complete coronavirus genomes, including four genomes representing alphacoronavirus species and five betacoronavirus genomes.

The alphacoronaviruses, which all fell into the Pedacovirus subgenus, turned up in the common pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) and the Daubenton's bat (Myotis daubentonii).

The three Pedacovirus sequences found in the Daubenton's bat samples belonged to a clade reported in Danish bats in the past, while the alphacoronavirus found in the common pipistrelle appeared to be novel, sharing less than 81 percent nucleotide sequence identity with the most closely related virus reported previously.

Three bat species carried betacoronaviruses, meanwhile, a genus encompassing human pathogens such as SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2, and MERS-CoV: the greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum), the lesser horseshoe bat (R. hipposideros), and the brown long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus).

One of those betacoronaviruses was a novel MERS-related merbecovirus that had less than 82 percent identity with other merbecoviruses, the researchers noted. The other four betacoronaviruses represented a group of related sarbecoviruses.

In cell line assays with noninfectious pseudovirus particles comprised of viral entry proteins, the investigators found that one of the sarbecoviruses had a spike protein capable of inefficient binding to hACE2, the human receptor that SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 use to enter and infect cells.

From these and other findings, the authors suggested that "while UK sarbecoviruses would require further molecular adaptations to infect humans, their zoonotic risk warrants closer surveillance."

Even so, they cautioned that "whilst it is imperative to quantify the risk of zoonotic events from bats and design approaches to mitigate this risk more effectively, bats fulfil important roles in ecosystems globally, including services such as arthropod pest suppression, pollination, and seed dispersal."

In addition, the investigators pointed to past studies suggesting that zoonotic spillover from bats and other wild animals may be propelled by habitat loss, land use changes, and other environmental effects caused by humans, and argued against bat culls to curb viral transmission.

"[I]t is vitally important that an integrated ecological conservation approach is taken that includes maintaining legal protection, rather than the destruction of wildlife and its habitat, in future efforts to mitigate zoonotic risk," they wrote.