A new study suggests that the link between bats and coronaviruses is likely due to a long-shared history. This genetic information can help us prevent and manage future pandemics.
“We found that bats have been under unusual pressure from coronaviruses compared to other mammals, supporting the idea that bats are rich sources of coronaviruses and may yield insights for future prevention or treatment,” said Dr. Hannah Frank, a bat expert at Tulane University.
“Pandemics originating from animals highlight the need to understand how natural hosts have evolved in response to emerging human pathogens and which groups may be susceptible to infection and/or potential reservoirs to mitigate public health and conservation concerns,” said Dr. Frank.
The team investigated an enzyme called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2. This is the host protein that serves as a receptor for the viruses that cause COVID-19 and SARS. Using the largest bat and mammal dataset to date, the experts also studied dipeptidyl-peptidase 4, DPP4 or CD26, which acts as a receptor for MERS-CoV, the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
Both genes are under stronger selection pressure in bats than other mammals, and in residues that contact viruses. Mammal groups vary in their similarity to humans in residues that contact these viruses. They also have an increased similarity to humans in binding residues susceptible to SARS-CoV-2.
The study further supports our understanding of the relationship between coronaviruses and mammals, especially bats. “It also highlights broad patterns in susceptibility that may prove useful for managing this and future pandemics,” said Dr. Frank.
The team stresses that this should not lead to a fear of bats, as they play an important role in our ecosystem such as pest control, pollinating plants and spreading seeds. The U.S. Wildlife and Fisheries Department estimates that bats eat enough insects to save more than $3 billion annually in crop damage and pesticide costs in the United States.
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.