The new coronavirus, COVID-19, has a lineage that “has been circulating unnoticed in bats for decades”

By Julie Mazziotta
July 29, 2020 12:22 PM
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Horseshoe bat
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The new coronavirus, COVID-19, likely developed from other viruses that have been “circulating unnoticed” in one type of bats for decades, a new study found.

Though researchers do not yet know how the virus jumped to humans, they believe that COVID-19, formally known as SARS-CoV-2, can be traced back to horseshoe bats, according to a study published Tuesday in Nature Microbiology.

Maciej Boni and his fellow researchers at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics traced the genealogy of COVID-19 and 67 related viruses and found that the new coronavirus that has thrust the world into a global pandemic is from a branch of coronavirus that developed in horseshoe bats between 1948 and 1982. That means “the lineage giving rise to SARS-CoV-2 has been circulating unnoticed in bats for decades,” they wrote.

This same type of horseshoe bats, Rhinolophus affinis, were determined to be the source of the 2004 SARS outbreak, though they came from a different branch of coronavirus.

Researchers have been searching for the source of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, and snakes and pangolins were at times thought to be the incubators. But this and other research has pointed to bats as the likely source.

Boni and his co-authors said that their findings are a concerning sign that there could be more dangerous illnesses circulating in horseshoe bats.

Their results show how “difficult it will be to identify viruses with potential to cause major human outbreaks before they emerge,” they wrote. “This underscores the need for a global network of real-time human disease surveillance systems.”

They recommend searching for other bat viruses that could also jump from bats to humans to avoid another outbreak.

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