Researchers analyzed strains of the viral family present in 36 species of bats and managed to build an evolutionary tree.
Bats are natural carriers of several types of coronavirus. For this reason, scientists from Université de La Réunion, France, and the Field Museum, in the USA, decided to compare the different types of viruses in the family that live in 36 different species of bats in the western Indian Ocean and Mozambique. They found that the two have been evolving together for millions of years – some groups or genera of bats even have their own coronavirus strain.
“We found that there’s a deep evolutionary history between bats and coronaviruses,” says Steve Goodman, a biologist at the Field Museum and author of an article published in Scientific Reports. “Developing a better understanding of how coronaviruses evolved can help us build public health programs in the future.”
Throughout the research, more than a thousand bats were analyzed, of which 8% had some kind of coronavirus – and there is no evidence that they are a threat or that they can be transmitted to humans.
After identifying the viruses, the researchers carried out genetic analyzes and found relationships between the viral family and several species of bats. “Based on the evolutionary history of the different bat groups, it is clear that there is a deep coexistence between bats (at the level of genus and family) and their associated coronaviruses,” says Goodman.
“We found that for the most part, each of the different genera of families of bats for which coronavirus sequences were available had their own strains,” he says. In addition, it was noted that, in rare cases, bats from different families, genera and species that live in the same caves share the same coronavirus strain.
The biologist also warns that hunting and killing these animals, as some groups have done after the outbreak of the pandemic, is unjustified. “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,” says Goodman. “The good they do for us outweighs any potential negatives.”