MISSOULA — New research about a novel coronavirus found in bats is the closest relative ever found to the virus we now know as COVID-19. But the map of the origins of the coronavirus responsible for the ongoing pandemic is still quite incomplete.
Horseshoe bats (genus Rhinolophus) are believed to be the main natural reservoir of SARS-related coronaviruses but as the search continues, research has found a large variety of coronavirus species in horseshoe bats collected in several provinces of China.
The closest relatives to COVID-19 -- also known as SARS-CoV-2 -- were identified from horseshoe bats sampled in the Yunnan province located in southern China. Research published in Nature Communications explains that COVID-19 related viruses have a much wider geographic distribution than previously understood.
The scientists also say the viruses likely circulate through multiple species of bats within the same genus as horseshoe bats. The researchers explain that this understanding of distribution may reflect a lack of sampling in Southeast Asia.
Pangolins, certain carnivores in the cat, weasel, and Viverrids family — like genets — are susceptible to COVID-19. These species may represent intermediary hosts for transmission to people, and researchers say these should not be ignored in future study efforts in the region.
Viruses of the COVID-19 sublineage -- with one exhibiting strong sequence similarity to COVID-19 -- were recently detected in distinct groups of pangolins seized during anti-smuggling operations in southeast China.
While it is not possible to know where these animals became infected, it is important to note that the natural geographic range of the pangolin species involved also corresponds to Southeast Asia and not China.
The discovery of these viruses in a bat species not found in China indicates that COVID-19 related viruses have a much wider geographic distribution than previously reported.
The novel coronavirus closely related to COVID-19 was found in bats that were sampled in 2010 from Cambodia.