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New Bat Viruses From Laos Identified As Closest Known Ancestors To COVID-19 Pandemic Strain

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Three coronaviruses identified in horseshoe bats in Northern Laos share key similarities with Sars-CoV-2, leading to assumptions that they may be the closest known ancestors to the strain.

A team of Laotian and French researchers from Institut Pasteur and the National University of Laos collected samples in the Southeast Asian nation over six months from July last year. Their discoveries have led to some explanation for how the virus has evolved.

The three coronaviruses which have been discovered are the most similar identified so far to Sars-CoV-2 in a critical part of its genome – the region which enables it to latch onto and infect cells.

Known as the receptor-binding domain, its genetic structure has been at the center of questions within the scientific community because it differs from the bat virus considered to be the closest known ancestor of Sars-CoV-2.

But the latest findings identify new ancestors that may have lent Sars-CoV-2 this particular attribute.

When taking into account the similarities across the receptor-binding domain, the new viruses – known as BANAL-52, BANAL-103, and BANAL-236 – are “the closest ancestors of Sars-CoV-2 known to date”, the researchers said in a paper uploaded to the Research Square preprint server on Friday ahead of peer review.

“These viruses may have contributed to Sars-CoV-2’s origin and may intrinsically pose a future risk of direct transmission to humans,” they said.

While the latest study does not solve the puzzle about the origins of the virus, the findings provide significant pushback against a theory that Sars-CoV-2 could have been genetically engineered, outside researchers say.

Evolutionary biologist Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney called it a “hugely important study” that strongly supports a natural origin of Sars-CoV-2 from animals.

The close similarity between the receptor-binding domains on the bat viruses found in Laos and on Sars-CoV-2 “totally rules out” this part of the virus being engineered or specifically adapted to people in lab work, Holmes said.

“It again shows how commonplace these Sars-CoV-2-like viruses are in nature. They seem to be part of the natural ecology of Southeast Asia and southern China,” he said.