Four ‘sister’ species of the horseshoe bat that sparked the global coronavirus pandemic are discovered in Africa – and they could help tackle future outbreaks

  • The four ‘sister’ species are called leaf-nosed bats and do carry coronaviruses  
  • But these are not hazardous to health and not causing the current pandemic  
  • Are closely related to the horseshoe bat species which was origin of COVID-19
  • Newly-discovered species have not yet been given official scientific names 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Four relatives of the bat species thought to be the original source of the novel coronavirus have been found in Africa. 

The previously undiscovered animals are considered to be ‘sister’ species to the horseshoe bat, which is widely believed to be the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which has caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bats act as reservoirs to coronaviruses and are immune to them but have the ability to spread them.  

Researchers say that studying the four new species and the viruses they harbour could help scientists and medics to prepare for any future outbreaks.   

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Researchers found the leaf-nosed bat (pictured) consists of eight distinct lineages; three of these (including this bat) appear to be new to science

The previously undiscovered bat species are closely related to the horseshoe bat (pictured). This winged mammal is thought to be a reservoir for the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19

How the novel coronavirus spread from bats and infected 2.5million people

Bats are robust creatures that are known to harbour reservoirs of coronaviruses. 

Most of these strains are unable to make the transition from one species t another.

However, a novel coronavirus emerged which was able to thrive in humans as a host. 

But it is thought the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 and is the root of the global pandemic, first passed from bats to an intermediary host. 

Scientific studies assessed the genetic lineage of the virus as it emerged in China and believe this animal was a pangolin. 

However, there is a lot of uncertainty among scientists as to what the intermediary may be. It could be pangolins, but could also be cats, buffalo, cattle, goats, sheep and pigeons. according to one study.

Some experts dispute the existence of an intermediary at all indicating the virus could have jumped directly from the horseshoe bat into humans. 

But contact between humans and animals allowed the virus to infect the first person in Wuhan, China, ground-zero of the outbreak. 

The virus is also able to be passed from human to human, which has seen the rapid propagation across the world, with now more than 2.5million confirmed cases worldwide. 

Research on its spread beytween humans and across humans has found it is rapidly mutating and several types of the coronavirus now exist in the world. 

One study from Cambridge University researchers found three types of the deadly coronavirus are spreading around the world. 

Analysis of the strains showed type A – the original virus that jumped to humans from bats via pangolins – was not China’s most common.

Instead, the pandemic’s ground-zero was mainly hit by type B, which was in circulation as far back as Christmas Eve.

Results showed type A was the most prevalent in Australia and the US, which has recorded more than 400,000 COVID-19 cases. 

Two-thirds of American samples were type A – but infected patients mostly came from the West Coast, and not New York.

In the case of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus jumped from a horseshoe bat in Wuhan and infected an intermediary species, believed to be a pangolin or stray dog, before ending up in humans. 

The four ‘sister’ species are called leaf-nosed bats and were identified by scientists using genetic analysis.

The specimens were all in a museum but had been collected originally in Africa.

The new bats belong to a group known scientifically as the Hipposideridae, and are also found throughout Asia and Australasia. 

They get their name from from bizarre flaps of skin on their faces that help them catch insects and act as radar dishes for their echolocation calls.

Lead author Dr Bruce Patterson, curator of mammals at the Field Museum, Chicago, said: ‘With COVID-19, we have a virus that is running amok in the human population.

‘It originated in a horseshoe bat in China. There are 25 or 30 species of horseshoe bats in China, and no one can determine which one was involved. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about them and their relatives.’ 

Scientists who identified the four species of bat do say they are confident none of the new species carry any diseases problematic to human health.  

Researchers from the Chicago Field Museum partnered with colleagues at Kenya’s Maasai Mara University and the National Museums of Kenya.

In a study, published today in a special pandemic issue of the journal Zookeys, they say the leaf-nosed bats were hiding in plain sight. 

They are similar, and yet distinct, from pre-existing species which have already been identified. This, the researchers say, is a good indicator of their close relationship to other bat species. 

Discovery of the bats is so recent they are yet to be given specific names and are only being referred to by the generic term ‘leaf-nosed’, which is the umbrella term for the family of animals they belong to.    

Their discovery is particularly important in the light of the COVID-19 crisis, report the international team.

But while bats are thought to be the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are urging the public to think rationally and not condemn bats as inherently dirty or infected animals. 

Explained Dr Patterson: ‘All organisms have viruses. The roses in your garden have viruses.

‘We worry about viruses when it comes to flu and pandemics, but viruses are part of nature and have been as far back as we go. And many viruses are harmless.’

Bats contract many infections without suffering serious adverse side effects because they have exceptionally fast metabolisms and robust DNA, which is able to repair any damage.

Humans do not have these capabilities.  

Pictures emerged on Twitter earler this year showing soup cooked with a bat. Bats are used in traditional Chinese medicine to ‘treat’ a series of illness, including coughing, malaria and gonorrhea. Bats have been confirmed as the most likely source of the infection 

Pictured, another of the new bat species. Discovery of the bats is so recently they have yet to be given specific names and are only being referred to by the generic term leaf-nosed which refers to the corresponding umbrella term for the family the animals belong to

Members of a third new bat species. A colony of what is apparently a new species of Hipposideros is pictured at an abandoned gold mine in Western Kenya

Large colonies huddle together and this allows the virus to spread throughout the group. Meanwhile, their ability to fly allows them to carry it over a large geographic range. 

Despite this, bats are reclusive creatures and actively avoid interactions with humans. 

Dr Terry Demos, a post-doctoral researcher and lead author of the study, also believes studying the new bat species and the virus held within cold help prevent future outbreaks akin to the current COVID-19 disease. 

He said: ‘Unless you try to seek out bats, either to harass them or kill them, it’s very, very unlikely that they’ll infect you. 

‘Leaf-nosed bats carry coronaviruses – not the strain that’s affecting humans right now.

‘But this is certainly not the last time a virus will be transmitted from a wild mammal to humans.

‘If we have better knowledge of what these bats are, we’ll be better prepared if that

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