Cambodia bat researchers on mission to track origin of COVID-19

Stung Treng, Sept. 20 (BUS): Researchers are collecting samples of bats in northern Cambodia in an effort to understand the coronavirus pandemic, returning to an area where a very similar virus was found in animals a decade ago.

Two specimens of horseshoe bats were collected in 2010 in Stung Treng county near Laos and kept in freezers at the Institut Pasteur de Camboge (IPC) in Phnom Penh, according to Reuters.

Tests on them last year revealed a close relative of the coronavirus that has killed more than 4.6 million people worldwide.

An eight-member research team from the IPC collected bat samples and recorded their species, sex, age and other details for a week. Similar research is being conducted in the Philippines.

“We hope that the result of this study will help the world get a better understanding of COVID-19,” said field coordinator Thafri Hoym, while carrying a net to catch bats.

Host species such as bats usually do not show any symptoms of the pathogen, but can be devastating if transmitted to humans or other animals.

Dr Veasna Duong, head of IPC’s Department of Virology, said his institute has made four such trips in the past two years, hoping to gain clues about the origin and evolution of the bat-borne virus.

“We want to know if the virus is still there… and know how the virus has evolved,” he said.

Deadly viruses that originate from bats include Ebola and other coronaviruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

But Veasna Duong said humans are responsible for the devastation caused by COVID-19, due to interference and destruction of natural habitats.

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“If we try to be near the wildlife, the chances of getting infected with the virus carried by the wildlife are more than usual. And the chances of the virus turning into infecting humans are also greater,” he said.

The France-funded project also aims to look at how the wildlife trade plays a role, said Julia Gilbeau, a research engineer in the virology unit at IPC.

“(The project) aims to provide new knowledge about Cambodia’s wild meat trade chains, document the diversity of betacoron viruses circulating through these chains, and develop a flexible and integrated system for the early detection of viral spreading events,” Gilbaud said.

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