Scientists for PREDICT, a government-funded infectious disease research program, have identified six new coronaviruses among bats in Myanmar, according to Smithsonian Magazine
While in the same family as SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19 — the scientists claim that the new viral strains are not closely related. Among the infected species were the Greater Asiatic yellow house bat, the wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bat, and Horsfield’s leaf-nosed bat.
“Two of these sites also featured popular cave systems where people were routinely exposed to bats through guano harvesting, religious practices and ecotourism,” the researchers said in a paper published by the online medical journal Plos One.
Those facts have major implications when it comes to preventing another viral outbreak. The authors noted how bats are “the natural reservoirs of viruses of public health concern.”
“The capacity of bats to carry and transmit zoonotic pathogens has been hypothesized to be due to their unique life history traits, including their ability for sustained flight, potential for long-distance dispersal, aggregation into densely populous colonies, and adaptation to peri-urban habitats,” they wrote.
“Many coronaviruses may not pose a risk to people, but when we identify these diseases early on in animals, at the source, we have a valuable opportunity to investigate the potential threat,” Live Science quoted Suzan Murray as saying. She serves as director of the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program, and was also a co-author of the study.
Murray went on to add that “vigilant surveillance, research and education are the best tools we have to prevent pandemics before they occur.”
Marc Valitutto is the study’s lead author, and he concurred with her assessment, stating, “Worldwide, humans are interacting with wildlife with increasing frequency, so the more we understand about these viruses in animals — what allows them to mutate and how they spread to other species — the better we can reduce their pandemic potential.”
Threat from wet markets
The current coronavirus pandemic is believed by many to have originated from the consumption of infected bats sold at a so-called “wet market” in Wuhan, China.
Wet markets are places where live exotic animals are sold and killed, often in unsanitary conditions, and have long been thought to pose a major infectious disease threat. In January, a New York Post article detailed the “filthy” practices that characterize them.
“It boggles my mind how, when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we just don’t shut it down,” the Post quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci as saying earlier this month.
During his interview, the high profile health official went on to declare that he doesn’t “know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that.”