Chinese researchers on Thursday said they have found a batch of new coronaviruses in bats, including one that may be the second closest genetically COVID-19 Virus.

According to the researchers, their discoveries in a small area in southwestern China’s Yunnan province reveal how many coronaviruses are in bats and how many have the potential to spread to people.

Weifeng Xi of Shandong University and his colleagues collected samples from small, forest-dwelling bats between May, 2019 and November, 2020. They took swabs from the bats’ mouths as well as tested urine and feces.

“In total, we assembled 24 novel coronavirus genomes from different bat species, including four SARS-CoV-2-like coronaviruses,” the researchers wrote in a statement. Report published in the journal Cell.

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There was a very similar, genetically similar SARS-CoV-2 virus that is causing the current pandemic, he said – a viral specimen named RpYN06 derived from a species of horseshoe called Rhinophus pusillus.

This would be the closest strain to SARS-CoV-2, except for genetic differences on the spike protein, the knob-like structure the virus uses when attaching to cells, he said.

“Together with SARS-CoV-2 related viruses collected from Thailand in June 2020, these results clearly demonstrate that viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 continue to be transmitted in bat populations, and in some areas. at a relatively high frequency,” he wrote.

Researchers are trying to figure out where SARS-CoV-2 came from. Although a bat is a likely source, it is possible that the virus may have infected an intermediary animal. The SARS virus, which spread in 2002-2004, was tracked from an animal called a civet cat.

“Bats are famous reservoirs hosts for different types of viruses which cause serious diseases in humans and have been linked to the spread of Hendra virus, Marburg virus, Ebola virus and, in particular, coronaviruses. In addition to bats and humans, the coronavirus can infect a wide range of domestic and wild animals, including pigs, cattle, rats, cats, dogs, chickens, deer and elephants,” he wrote.

Most of the specimens came from a species of horseshoe bat. In 2017, researchers sampling a cave in Yunnan found a virus genetically very close to the SARS virus in horseshoe bats.

Three of the samples described in Thursday’s report were also genetically close to SARS.

“Our study highlights the remarkable diversity of bat coronaviruses locally, including close relatives of both SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV,” they wrote. The bat species they sampled are common in Southeast Asia, including southwest China, Vietnam, Laos, and elsewhere.

Although there is some controversy about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, a report by the World Health Organization says the most likely source is an animal – perhaps a bat.

People hunt and eat bats, and bats can infect other animals that are preyed upon by humans as well. Viruses can infect people when they handle or slaughter animals.