Six new bat coronaviruses discovered - yet another step in the race against COVID-19

Efforts continue to learn more about SARS-CoV-2, the cause of one of the most important events of our time. Some of these are rapidly crystallizing into useful data.

To show a button: Researchers have discovered six new types of bat-borne coronaviruses in Myanmar, an area where the population is in direct contact with these animals so it could be a potential focus of new diseases. Understanding how they work, how they evolve and, above all, how they are transmitted to humans is a vital question to solve in order to prevent future pandemics like the current one.

Six new coronaviruses for the catalog

Researchers from the Smithsonian's Global Health Program work faster than ever since the start of the pandemic. Their goal is to discover more about the "mysterious" coronaviruses. Among its latest results is the discovery of six new species in bats in Myanmar, in Burma, southern China. In this area, the coexistence between these animals and humans is very common, making it an excellent place to study zoonoses, animal-human infections.

Of the viruses found, three alphacoronaviruses and three betacoronaviruses are completely new, in addition to having found another alphacoronavirus present in other areas of Southeast Asia but never before in Myanmar. According to the researchers estimate, there must be thousands of species, of which we barely know 40.

The researchers warn of the need to continue detecting new coronaviruses and keep monitoring populations like bats to avoid events as brutal as the recent pandemic. Furthermore, the discovery of these species will allow us to discover more about viral mechanisms and their expansion.

How many coronaviruses do we know?

Currently, we know a little more than 40 coronaviruses (46 with those described here). Coronavirus is what the subfamily viruses are called Orthocoronavirinae, from the order of the Nidovirals. These viruses constitute one of the two subfamilies of Coronaviridae, and they are viruses with an RNA strand in their nucleus.

The Orthocoronavirinae They are divided into four other groups: alphacoronaviruses, betacoronaviruses, gammacoronaviruses, and deltacoronaviruses. Of these, the first affect mainly livestock, the second humans, the third birds and the fourth also humans. SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a betacoronavirus, a group also associated with bats, where they reside as a reservoir.

The consequences of a coronavirus infection are very diverse. In humans, coronaviruses cause colds, complications such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia, in addition to some stomach conditions. In animals, the problems are similar, affecting the lungs and digestive, among others. These viruses, in general, are the cause of diseases and conditions with important socioeconomic consequences.

Among other things, coronaviruses are responsible for diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome, in addition to the SARS-Cov-2 that we are currently experiencing. Therefore, it is necessary to better understand these viruses.

What can we learn from the new viruses found?

In the latest investigations, the dog is considered as a possible origin of the specific coronavirus that has caused the current pandemic. This hypothesis, which is still being debated, would explain that the virus would come from bats, like many other beta-coronaviruses, and would have mutated in the intestine of a canine, probably a stray dog, from which it would have jumped to the human being.

Why are we interested in knowing exactly where the virus comes from? The question is purely practical: we need to understand how the virus evolves, mutates and is transmitted in order to anticipate new infections. To discover a new virus, samples are taken and genetic remains are analyzed. The virus chain breaks in the process.

Using advanced sequencing techniques, this chain is reconstructed by supercomputing, which calculates the probabilities of the sequence and its structure, in addition to comparing it with the databases of known viruses. In this way we not only discover new viruses, but we can also find juicy genetic data.

These, in turn, help us understand many molecular details of the virus, something basic to understand its mechanisms of action. Therefore, investigating new viruses not only gives us information about their ecology, but also about the mechanisms they use to transmit, evolve and resist. And all knowledge is little to combat the disease they carry.

Images | Unsplash

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