In northern Cambodia, a group of researchers is collecting samples from bats to understand the coronavirus pandemic and look into areas where a very similar virus was found in animals a decade ago.
Ten years back two samples were collected from horseshoe-shaped bats in Steung Treng Province near Laos and stored in the freezer at the Cambodia Pasteur Institute (IPC) in Phnom Penh. When researchers conducted tests of these samples last year it was found that they were close to the coronavirus, which killed more than 4.6 million people worldwide.
An eight-member IPC research team collected samples from bats and recorded their species, gender, age, and other details for a week. A similar study is underway in the Philippines.
“I hope the results of this study will help the world better understand COVID-19,” field coordinator Ms. Thavry Hoem stated. Host species such as bats usually show no symptoms of pathogens, but infecting humans and other animals can be devastating.
Dr. Veasna Duong, IPC’s Dean of Virology, said that in the last two years, his laboratory has made four such trips, hoping for clues about the origin and evolution of bat-borne viruses. “I want to find out if the virus still exists and how it evolved,” he added.
Bats are the carriers of some deadly viruses including Ebola and other coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). However, Dr. Duong said that humans are the cause of the devastation caused by COVID-19 due to the interference and destruction of natural habitats.
“When we try to get closer to wildlife, the virus is more likely to be carried by the wildlife than usual. It is also likely that the virus will change to infect humans,” he said.
The French-funded project also aims to explore how wildlife trading can play a role, said Ms. Julia Guillebaud, a research engineer at the IPC’s Virology Unit.
“The project will provide new knowledge about Cambodia’s wild meat trading chains, document the diversity of beta coronaviruses circulating in these chains, and develop a flexible and integrated early detection system for viral spillover events,” said Ms. Gillebaud.