Scientists have discovered a new coronavirus virus with a 91.5 percent similarity to the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The new virus, named RacCS203, was discovered by a research team led by Lin-Fa Wang of the University of Singapore. It was found in horseshoe bats kept in an artificial cave in a wildlife sanctuary in Thailand.
The scenario is strikingly similar to that in which the bats infected with the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus were discovered by a research team in the province of Yunnan, China.
The RacCS203 virus is also related to a second new coronavirus named RmYN02.
RmYN02, like SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), is also found in the horseshoe bats who live in the caves of Yunnan, China, according to a report by the researchers published this week in Nature Communications.
RmYN02 is an even closer match to COVID-19, with a 93.6 percent similarity to the SARS-CoV-2 genome, researchers said.
The differences between the viruses are found in the spike protein, according to the report in Nature Communications.
The researchers said they believe it is impossible for the new virus to infect human cells because of those differences. Let us hope and pray they are correct.
“We need to do more surveillance in animals,” Professor Lin-Fa Wang,” told the BBC. “In order to find the true origin, the surveillance work needs to go beyond the border of China.”
Thus far, related viruses have been found apart from one another at a distance between 4,800 kilometers (2,983 miles). The researchers said they were confident that coronaviruses “with a high degree of genetic relatedness to SARS-CoV-2 are widely present in bats across many nations and regions in Asia.” That area includes Japan, China and Thailand, the researchers wrote in the published report.
Dr Thiravat Hemachudha of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, was part of the team of international researchers, who also examined antibodies in bats and a trafficked pangolin seized in southern Thailand.
The team found that the antibodies in the infected bats and other pangolins were able to neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus – further evidence, the researchers said, that SARS-CoV-2 related coronaviruses are circulating in Southeast Asia.
Research on Coronaviruses Began Years Ago
Dr. Shi Zhengli, head of the research project who had been publishing studies relating to bat coronaviruses for many years, was working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) lab when the story about the global impact of SARS-CoV-2 first broke in the international media.
Shi’s team had published their five-year research on surveillance of a cave inhabited by multiple species of horseshoe bats” in November 2017, just prior to a visit by officials from the US Embassy in 2018, showing the bats they had collected from the cave in Yunnan province were very likely from the same bat population that spawned the SARS coronavirus in 2003.
“A large number of SARS-related coronaviruses (SARSr-CoV) have been detected in horseshoe bats since 2005 in different areas of China,” the researchers wrote.
“This work provides new insights into the origin and evolution of SARS-CoV and highlights the necessity of preparedness for future emergence of SARS-like diseases,” the team wrote in their research at that time.
According to the US Embassy cable, “The researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus.
“This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”