Scientists to study bat samples from ROM to prevent future coronavirus outbreaks

'The idea is that we will have a vaccine in the ready-to-go stage that could essentially just exist frozen, to be revived at any time'

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To get a head start in the next global pandemic, a team of reachers from Western University are teaming up with biologists from the Royal Ontario Museum to look at thousands of frozen bat tissue samples and bat droppings to develop a bank of ready-made vaccines.

The team at Western University has been hunting for novel coronoviruses endemic to bats that have the potential for animal-to-human transmission.  By then isolating the unique spike genes from those viruses, they would  be able to form the backbone of a number of ready-made vaccines for future coronavirus outbreaks.

Ryan Troyer, a virologist from the department of Microbiology & Immunology at Western’s Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, says they are studying the bat samples to get a better understanding of the diversity of the virus.

“The idea is that we will have a vaccine in the ready-to-go stage that could essentially just exist frozen, to be revived at any time, and to be rapidly produced in the event that it was needed for a new disease outbreak,” said Troyer.

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During the past 20 years, there have been three coronavirus epidemics in humans, including SARS in 2003, MERS and now SARS-CoV-2, which has caused the global COVID-19 pandemic.  Although coronaviruses exist in nature, all of these viruses appeared to be related to coronaviruses in bats.

“When you put all of these things together, there is reasonable likelihood of animal-to-human transmission of another coronavirus in the future,” said Troyer. “So, our project is aimed at preparing for this eventuality by generating vaccines for the diverse coronaviruses that are present in nature, particularly focusing on those from bats.”

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The researchers will be looking at the different coronaviruses’ ability to spike. Troyer explains that spike proteins in a virus is the membrane protein responsible for a virus’ entry into different cells. These proteins bind to receptors on target cells. Studying these proteins can help determine what bat species have the version of the coronavirus that can spread and cause infections.

The university team had access to a wealth of bat samples just a mere two hours away. The ROM in Toronto has been collecting and freezing animal tissue from fieldwork expeditions since the late 1980s to help with classifications of taxonomy and genomics. They have nearly 15,000 bat specimens representing several species from 30 countries. Before closing for COVID-19 the ROM’s Bat cave was a popular display. The cave is a recreation of the St. Clair Cave in Jamaica built based on ROM fieldwork; it teaches children how bats use echolocation and features 800 models and over 20 bat species.

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“Built up over many years of ROM field work researching bats, we have amassed a comprehensive collection of tissue samples from different species and countries including bats from China,” said Burton Lim, the assistant curator of mammalogy at the ROM.

Troyer says that among their findings so far, they have found that the version of the coronavirus that makes humans sick is not present in North American bats, but his study will reevaluate the risk.

Karen Vanderwolf, a PHD student at Trent University, who has been studying bats since 2006, agrees. She says despite the history of diseases transmitted from bats to humans, we do not have to be afraid if we notice bats around our homes or neighbourhoods.

“While bats carry coronaviruses, none of the coronaviruses that cause human illness are present in bats in North America. Big brown bats, the most common species of bats in Canada, are not a competent reservoir for COVID-19, nor do they get sick from it,” she said.

Canada’s 18 bat species can be found roosting (living) anywhere that provides protection, such as buildings, tree hallows, under bridges or in caves. Bats have a few predators, such as falcons, hawks, owls, snakes and raccoons.

Vanderwolf says humans pose a greater threat to bats than the other way around. “There is more potential for humans to infect bats with COVID-19, which may have more serious consequences,” she says, because it could potentially “create a new reservoir for the pathogen that could then be cross-transmitted back to humans.”

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