A coronavirus related to the virus that causes Covid-19 in humans has been found in UK horseshoe bats – according to new collaborative research from the University of East Anglia, ZSL (Zoological Society of London), and Public Health England (PHE).
UEA researchers collected faecal samples from more than 50 lesser horseshoe bats in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wales and sent them for viral analysis at Public Health England. Genome sequencing found a novel coronavirus in one of the bat samples, which the team have named ‘RhGB01’.
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.
Prof Andrew Cunningham, from the Zoological Society of London, said: “Our findings highlight that the natural distribution of sarbecoviruses and opportunities for recombination through intermediate host co-infection have been underestimated.
“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. So if a bat with the RhGB01 infection we found were to become infected with SARS-CoV-2, there is a risk that these viruses would hybridise and a new virus emerge with the RBD of SARS-CoV-2, and so be able to infect people.
Image by Marie Jullion – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3377471