Researchers are collecting samples from bats in northern Cambodia to learn more about the coronavirus pandemic, returning to a location where a virus that is quite similar to the coronavirus was detected in bats a decade ago.
In 2010, two horseshoe bat samples were collected in the province of Stung Treng, which borders Laos, and held in freezers at Phnom Penh’s Institut Pasteur du Cambodge (IPC).
They were determined to be infected with a virus linked to the coronavirus, which has killed over 4.6 million people globally, according to tests conducted last year.
For the past week, an eight-member IPC research team has been collecting bat samples and charting their species, sex, age, and other information.
In the Philippines, similar study is being conducted.
“We believe that the findings of this study will contribute to a better knowledge of COVID-19 over the world,” field coordinator Thavry Hoem told Reuters as she clutched a bat-catching net.
Pathogens usually have no symptoms in host species like bats, but they can be deadly if they are transmitted to people or other animals.
Dr. Veasna Duong, the IPC’s Head of Virology, said his institute has made four similar missions in the last two years, aiming to learn more about the virus’s origins and evolution.
“We want to find out whether the virus is still there and … to know how the virus has evolved,” he told Reuters.
Deadly viruses originating 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 were responsible for the devastation caused by COVID-19, due to interference and destruction of natural habitats.
“If we try to be near wildlife, the chances of getting the virus carried by wildlife are more than normal. The chances of the virus transforming to infect humans are also more,” he said.
The French-funded project also aims to look at how the wildlife trade could be playing a part, said Julia Guillebaud, a research engineer at the IPC’s virology unit.
“(The project) aims to provide new knowledge on wild meat trade chains in Cambodia, document the diversity of betacoronaviruses circulating through these chains, and develop a flexible and integrated early-detection system of viral spill-over events,” Gillebaud said.