A new coronavirus that is similar to the one behind the COVID-19 pandemic has been found in bats in the UK — though is not currently a threat to humans, according to a report.
The virus, RhGB01, was first discovered by a 22-year-old ecology undergraduate, Ivana Murphy, while collecting bat droppings for her final year dissertation, according to the Times of London.
While it is the first time such a virus has been found in bats in Britain, it is similar to the one behind the pandemic, which is also long thought to have originated in bats, the report noted.
So far, “this UK virus is not a threat to humans,” said Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London, a co-author of a study on the virus.
“The receptor-binding domain — the part of the virus that attaches to host cells to infect them — is not compatible with being able to infect human cells,” he insisted.
The real fear is if humans pass COVID-19 to bats, and it then combines with the RhGB01 to form yet another new virus, adding a new challenge to current vaccines.
“Preventing transmission of Sars-CoV-2 to bats is critical with the current global mass vaccination campaign against this virus,” warns the study, due to be published in the journal Scientific Reports, the UK paper said.
Diana Bell, a professor at the University of East Anglia also involved in the study, said it highlighted the risks of people coming into contact with bats.
“Anyone coming into contact with bats or their droppings, such as bat rescuers or cavers, should wear appropriate [personal protective equipment] in order to reduce the risk of a mutation,” she warned.
“We need to apply stringent regulations globally for anyone handling bats and other wild animals.”
Murphy — the student who first discovered the virus — fears it could create a bat-lash.
“I’m worried that people may suddenly start fearing and persecuting bats, which is the last thing I would want and would be unnecessary,” she told the paper.
“As like all wildlife, if left alone they do not pose any threat.”