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Infectious Diseases

04 May 2020

Bats and coronaviruses go back centuries

According to researchers, coronaviruses don't appear to be harmful to bats, but they can pose a threat to other animals if they jump between species.

Bats and coronavirus have been evolving together for millions of years, researchers report.

In a new study, investigators compared different kinds of coronaviruses living in 36 bat species found on islands in the western Indian Ocean and coastal areas of the African nation of Mozambique.

The researchers discovered that 8% of all the bats they tested were carrying a coronavirus and that different groups of bats had their own unique strains of coronavirus.

"We found that there's a deep evolutionary history between bats and coronaviruses," said study co-author Steve Goodman, a field biologist at Chicago's Field Museum.

All animals have viruses

"Developing a better understanding of how coronaviruses evolved can help us build public health programmes in the future," he explained in a museum news release.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

All animals have viruses that live inside them. Bats, and a number of other mammal groups, are natural carriers of coronaviruses. These coronaviruses don't appear to be harmful to the bats, but they can pose a threat to other animals if they jump between species, the researchers said.

There are a huge number of different coronaviruses, and most aren't known to infect humans and pose no known threat.

Bats important for ecosystem

The coronaviruses carried by the three dozen bat species in this study are different from the one that causes Covid-19, but learning about coronaviruses in bats in general may improve understanding of the coronavirus causing the current pandemic, according to the study authors.

The researchers also emphasised that even though bats carry coronaviruses, they shouldn't be harmed or culled in a misguided attempt to protect human health.

"There's abundant evidence that bats are important for ecosystem functioning, whether it be for the pollination of flowers, dispersal of fruits, or the consumption of insects, particularly insects that are responsible for transmission of different diseases to humans," Goodman said.

"The good they do for us outweighs any potential negatives," he stressed.

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Image credit: Vlad Kutepov, Unsplash