UEA student finds novel Covid in bats - but it is not a risk to humans

Ivana Murphy

Undergraduate ecology student Ivana Murphy, from UEA's School of Biological Sciences, made the discovery. - Credit: UEA

A University of East Anglia student has discovered a novel coronavirus in British bats for the first time - but researchers say it is not a risk to humans.

The study produced by the University of East Anglia, Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and Public Health England (PHE) says there is no evidence the novel virus has been transmitted to humans, or that it could in future unless it mutates.

The discovery was made by undergraduate ecology student Ivana Murphy, from UEA's School of Biological Sciences, who was collecting droppings of lesser horseshoe bats as part of her final year research dissertation. 

This involved the capture of 53 bats in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wales to analyse faecal matter, which was then sent for viral analysis at PHE.

Group of Lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros)

Group of Lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In one sample, sequencing found novel coronavirus in one of the bat samples and is the first time such a virus has been found in the bat. 

She said: “I am very fortunate to be surrounded by so many experts in their fields, which has allowed me access to resources that many undergraduates wouldn’t have. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to conduct such an advanced study.”

The research team says the bats will almost certainly have harboured the virus for a very long time.

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Miss Murphy added: “More than anything, I’m worried that people may suddenly start fearing and persecuting bats, which is the last thing I would want and would be unnecessary. As like all wildlife, if left alone they do not pose any threat.” 

Prof Diana Bell, an expert in emerging zoonotic diseases from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said this was a case of "seek and you shall find" with different coronaviruses found in other mammal species. 

She said: "These bats will almost certainly have harboured this virus for a very long time – probably many thousands of years. We didn’t know about it before because this is the first time that such tests have been carried out in UK bats."

She added stringent regulations needed to be applied globally for anyone handling bats and other wild animals.

Prof Andrew Cunningham, from ZSL, said: “This UK virus is not a threat to humans because the receptor binding domain (RBD) – the part of the virus that attaches to host cells to infect them - is not compatible with being able to infect human cells.

“But the problem is that any bat harbouring a SARS-like coronavirus can act as a melting pot for virus mutation.

“Preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to bats, and hence reducing opportunities for virus mutation, is critical with the current global mass vaccination campaign against this virus.”

The University of East Anglia.

The University of East Anglia were among the research collaborators on the study. - Credit: Denise Bradley

The University of East Anglia released a Q&A in light of the research:

What does this research show?

The research has found a type of coronavirus in a bat in the UK, which is related to the virus that causes Covid-19 in humans.

However, there is no evidence that this novel virus has been transmitted to humans, or that it could in future, unless it mutates.

Is this a danger to the public?

This novel virus is unlikely to pose a direct risk to humans, unless it mutates or undergoes recombination.

Recombination could happen if a human infected with Covid-19 passes it to a bat harbouring the newly discovered ‘RhGB01’ coronavirus.

Anyone coming into contact with bats or their droppings, for example those engaged in caving or bat protection, should wear appropriate PPE.

Is this a new strain of Covid-19?

No. It is the first time that a sarbecovirus (SARS-related coronavirus) has been found in a lesser horseshoe bat and the first to be discovered in the UK.

How did you do this research?

UEA researchers collected bat droppings from lesser horseshoe bats in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wales. A total of 53 bats were captured, and their faeces collected in sterile bags.

The research was conducted under strict Health and Safety protocols. Full PPE was worn and the researchers were regularly tested for Covid-19 to avoid any chance of cross contamination. The bats were released immediately after their droppings had been collected.

The droppings were sent for viral analysis at PHE.

Genome sequencing there found a novel coronavirus in one of the bat samples, which the team have named ‘RhGB01’.

Is this virus widespread in UK bats?

Almost certainly not. Although, sarbecoviruses (SARS-related coronaviruses) have been found in several bat species in Asia, almost all belonged to the genus, Rhinolophus.

Consistent with this pattern, the new virus found in our study was found in a lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros). It is likely, therefore, that this virus is only present in horseshoe bats, and probably only in the lesser horseshoe bat, which is quite rare in the UK.

Why didn’t we know about this before?

These bats will almost certainly have harboured this virus for a very long time – probably for thousands of years. But this is the first time that such tests have been carried out in UK bats.

Similar viruses have been found in other horseshoe bat species in China, South East Asia and Eastern Europe.

Could the covid-19 pandemic have originated in the UK?

No. It most likely originated within the wildlife trade – where wild animals are kept close to each other in extensive illegal trade route systems, markets, restaurants and wildlife ‘farms’.

This leads to a ‘speed dating’ of zoonotic viruses circulating among the high densities of different animal species packed together at markets or while being transported to markets.

The wildlife trade is a massive threat to human health and indeed biodiversity. 

The university said stringent regulations globally for anyone handling bats and other wild animals.

Could other types of bats be infected with similar viruses?

Yes. It’s probable that horseshoe bats at least are a natural host for these viruses and as more of this bat group are tested globally more novel sarbecoviruses will be found.

We know that there are coronaviruses in many mammal species. There over 90 species of horseshoe bats and some 1,400 other bat species which comprise 20 per cent of known mammals.

Our findings highlight the need for robust testing for these types of viruses in bat populations around the world.

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