British bats ‘can help identify coronaviruses with potential to infect humans’

Monitoring British bats can help identify coronaviruses with the potential to cause disease and infect humans, research suggests.

A research team led by Imperial College London and University College London scientists analysed faecal samples from UK bats for coronaviruses – a large family of viruses that usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses in humans.

The findings report the circulation of four species of coronaviruses, including two previously unknown ones, among the 16 UK bat species sampled.

The researchers say that while some of these viruses are related to those that cause Covid-19 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers), none can currently infect humans.

Regular surveillance of viruses in wildlife and more widely is a public health issue, researchers say.

Bats are protected species in the UK, so working with conservation organisations is crucial to this effort, they add.

Lead researcher Professor Vincent Savolainen, from the Georgina Mace Centre for the Living Planet at Imperial College London, said: “Working with a network of conservationists and bat rehabilitators has been most fruitful in documenting the diversity of coronaviruses that is present in British bats, and which had been so far overlooked.

“This collaborative work forms the basis for future zoonotic surveillance and conservation efforts given the importance that bats play in our ecosystems.”

Co-author Professor Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute, added: “In many parts of the world, we have decent surveillance of the pathogens circulating in humans and domestic animals but not so much in wildlife.

“Increased surveillance should improve public health preparedness and food security, and also be beneficial for biodiversity conservation.”

Diseases that emerge in animals and transfer to humans are known as zoonotic.

In order to spread to people, the infection requires the virus to be able to infect human cells, and to cause an outbreak, it must then be able to spread between humans.

Many zoonotic diseases may pass to people in direct contact with the host animal and do not progress further.

The researchers studied the possibility of these viruses spilling over and infecting humans by creating pseudoviruses which carry whichever protein the virus uses to bind to host cells, but cannot replicate.

While none were currently able to infect human cells, one of the sarbecoviruses found in a sample from the lesser horseshoe bat was able to bind to ACE2, the receptor the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to enter human cells.

However, this could only enter human cells in a lab when there was an overabundance of ACE2, suggesting it would need to adapt further if it were to infect humans.

Lisa Worledge, head of conservation services at the Bat Conservation Trust, said: “New techniques such as the one used in this paper are increasing our understanding and highlight the importance of protecting nature.

“This work provides a great example of researchers and conservationists working together for the wider good.

“Beyond reducing the chances of zoonosis, we know that protecting wildlife brings many other benefits.

“From providing ecosystem services such as controlling insects that damage crops through to the simple joy of watching bats on a summer’s night, bats are a vital part of our natural heritage.”

The findings are published in Nature Communications.