Although from a different lineage as the COVID-19 virus, experiments
suggest the bat viruses can get into human cells and evade immunity.
Story at a glance
Researchers are studying the coronavirus in animals to get an
understanding of what is circulating in animal populations.
One study finds a bat coronavirus can enter human cells.
In laboratory tests, it was also able to resist antibodies from SARS-CoV-
The World Health Organization’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in May
that because of reduced testing and sequencing “we are blinding ourselves
to the evolution of the virus.” Similarly, because coronaviruses are found
in other mammals, it is important to be aware of what is circulating among
animal populations. A team of researchers at Washington State University
and Tulane University School of Medicine is aiming to do just that.
In a paper published in PLoS Pathogens, they detail two coronaviruses
detected in a population of horseshoe bats in Russia. The lineages of the
viruses are separate from original SARS-CoV-1 from 2003 and SARS-CoV-2,
which is responsible for the current pandemic.
However, the researchers think that it is useful to study coronaviruses in
wild animals to understand viral evolution and potential for crossover
They sequenced the bat coronaviruses and tested them in the laboratory
against human cells. The bat viruses had a receptor binding domain, a part
of the virus that can bind to molecules on the membranes of cells, that
were able to help them enter human cells.
The team also tested the viruses against SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies
and serum from individuals vaccinated for SARS-CoV-2 that contained
antibodies. One of the two bat coronaviruses was resistant to both
monoclonal antibodies and vaccine-induced antibodies. They had a similar
result when they tested it against antibodies from someone who recovered
from an infection of an omicron variant.
“We don’t want to scare anybody and say this is a completely vaccine-
resistant virus,” says Michael Letko, who is assistant professor in the
Paul Allen School of Public Health at Washington State University and led
the study, to TIME. “But it is concerning that there are viruses
circulating in nature that have these properties—they can bind to human
receptors and are not so neutralized by current vaccine responses.”
One of the main concerns is if these bat coronaviruses can combine with
SARS-CoV-2 and lead to new variants. If these new variants inherit immune
evasive characteristics, that could be a problem for us.
While it’s not a signal for alarm, studies like this will be important to
know what lineages and versions of coronaviruses are circulating in the
wild and how they may relate to what’s circulating in humans. Letko says,
“These viruses are really widespread everywhere, and are going to continue
to be an issue for humans in general.”