Researchers from Imperial College and University College London screened faecal samples from 16 of the UK's 17 species of bat. They discovered four species of coronaviruses, two of which had never been found before.
None are currently capable of infecting humans, the scientists said, but some were found to be distantly related to the pathogen which causes Covid and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
Diseases that emerge in animals and transfer to humans are known as ‘zoonotic’. Human infection requires the virus to be able to infect human cells, and to cause an outbreak, it must then be able to spread between humans. This process is known as “zoonotic spillover”.
The coronavirus that causes Covid is believed to have originated in a bat, though it remains unclear how it infected its first human host.
Investigations are also ongoing into the theory that the virus emerged from a Wuhan laboratory where bat coronavirus samples were being studied.
Co-author Professor Francois Balloux, Director of the UCL Genetics Institute, said: “In many parts of the world, we have decent surveillance of the pathogens circulating in humans and domestic animals but not so much in wildlife. Increased surveillance should improve public health preparedness and food security, and also be beneficial for biodiversity conservation.”
While bat virus surveys have been conducted in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe, in the UK bat viruses have been overlooked for detailed genetic studies, beyond European bat lyssaviruses that cause rabies.
Viruses are more likely to spill over from wild animals when they are brought in closer contact with humans. Habitat losses and land-use changes across the world have been linked with an increase probability of zoonotic spillover.
The researchers said that maintaining bat conservation efforts and minimising habitat destruction could help to prevent zoonotic spillover, alongside a monitoring program that regularly screens for potential pathogens.
Lead researcher Professor Vincent Savolainen, from the Georgina Mace Centre for the Living Planet at Imperial College London, said: “Working with a network of conservationists and bat rehabilitators has been most fruitful in documenting the diversity of coronaviruses that is present in British bats, and which had been so far overlooked.
“This collaborative work forms the basis for future zoonotic surveillance and conservation efforts given the importance that bats play in our ecosystems.”