Museums scour bat collections in search of COVID clues

Coronavirus

(AP) – In the depths of London’s Natural History Museum, a search for answers.

Curators are digitizing and cataloging the museum’s extensive collection of bat specimens.

It’s part of a Europe-wide project that’s aiming to provide insight into the origins of COVID-19 and mitigate against the risk of future pandemics.

“The hope is that all this information will help in some way to figure out where the next pandemic might break out,” explains senior mammals curator Roberto Portela Miguez.

Information is being gathered on the three main bat families connected to coronaviruses – horseshoe bats, and their closely related Old World leaf-nosed bats and trident bats.

A consortium of nine major European collections is taking part in the project. The data will be made available to researchers around the world.

“Often, collectors kept notes of where the bats were collected, like whether it was in caves or forest or close to human settlements, and so that ecological information is also quite important, in order to figure out how these animals live, where they live, how they live,” says Portela Miguez.

“This is all very valuable information that we could do with, especially way before this, but especially now.”

Museum experts say the pandemic has highlighted a lack of access to bat information.

The Natural History Museum’s collections span back to the 1750s, many of its specimens even earlier.

It includes hundreds of thousands of mammals. Portela Miguez says perhaps 60,000 bats, although the exact figure is not yet known.

“They will have information related to specimen’s not just collected now, but many years in the past,” says digitizer Phaedra Kokkini, whose job it is to sift through the collection, reading labels and other information.

“We can also use this data to model projections into the future and see how species are going to be affected by what we are doing in the environment.”

Over a year after a novel coronavirus was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, questions still remain about the origins of COVID-19.

Many scientists believe the virus most likely occurred in nature and jumped from animals to humans.

So-called “spillover events”, when viruses jump from animals to humans, are common in nature.

The Natural History Museum says about three quarters of emerging infections are zoonotic – transmitted from animals to humans.

Bats are known to carry coronaviruses and, in fact, the closest relative of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in bats.

“Certain viruses detected in bat populations have come close to being 96 percent similar to the COVID(-19),” says Portela Miguez.

“And so, there is a high chance that it is the bats that carry the virus and then it sort of trickled down or transferred to other species.”

In May, President Joe Biden ordered U.S. intelligence officials to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, including any possibility the trail might lead to a Chinese laboratory.

Confirming with 100 percent certainty the origin of a virus is often not fast, easy, or always even possible.

Scientists, for example, never confirmed the origin of smallpox before the disease was eradicated through a global vaccination program.

Researchers have ventured into caves to collect samples from living bats.

But it’s thought bat specimens held in natural history collections represent a huge – often untapped – resource.

“We can say; ‘Okay, bats potentially transmit this disease, but what other species? Do all the bats transmit those disease or not?’ So, I think we need to still do a lot of groundwork in terms of understanding how diverse this group of animals is,” says Portela Miguez.

Work here may not yield clues to the origins of the pandemic, but curators hope it may help prevent a future one.

The global death toll from COVID-19 reached four million on Wednesday (July 7) as the crisis increasingly becomes a race between the vaccine and the highly contagious delta variant.

The tally of lives lost over the past year and a half, as compiled from official sources by Johns Hopkins University, is about equal to the number of people killed in battle in all of the world’s wars since 1982, according to estimates from the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

The toll is three times the number of people killed in traffic accidents around the globe every year.

It is about equal to the population of Los Angeles or the nation of Georgia. It is equivalent to more than half of Hong Kong or close to 50 percent of New York City.

Even then, it is widely believed to be an undercount because of overlooked cases or deliberate concealment.

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