A new coronavirus similar to the one behind the COVID-19 pandemic has been found in rare bats in Gloucestershire which is a first for the UK.

Ecology undergraduate Ivana Murphy found the virus in droppings collected from protected lesser horseshoe bats in the county, one of the few places they can be found and a European hotspot for the creatures.

Now bat enthusiasts, cavers, wildlife rescuers and others are being warned to wear protective clothing when coming into contact with the small plum-sized bats so they don’t risk the creation of a new mutation that could get around the Covid vaccine.

Although the new virus named RhGB01 is not a danger to humans on its own, there are fears it could combine with COVID-19 transmitted from a human to create a new deadly new mutation.

“The receptor-binding domain — the part of the virus that attaches to host cells to infect them — is not compatible with being able to infect human cells,” said Professor Andrew Cunningham, from Zoological Society of London.

“But the problem is that any bat harbouring a SARS-like coronavirus can act as a melting pot for virus mutation.

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“So if a bat with the RhGB01 infection we found were to become infected with SARS-CoV-2, there is a risk that these viruses would hybridise and a new virus emerge and so be able to infect people.

“Preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to bats, and hence reducing opportunities for virus mutation, is critical with the current global mass vaccination campaign against this virus.”

Ivana Murphy tested the droppings for the Covid-19 virus, which many believe originated in bats, as part of her final year dissertation project at the University of East Anglia.

The Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley supports the greatest concentration in the UK and probably Europe of the rare lesser horseshoe bats and over one quarter live in the mines, tunnels and caves under the area.

Similar viruses have been found in other horseshoe bat species in China, South East Asia and Eastern Europe but researchers wanted to test those in the furthest point to the West.

Health workers wearing personal protective equipment prepare food for patients suffering from COVID-19
Health workers wearing personal protective equipment prepare food for patients suffering from COVID-19
(Image: AP Photo/Omar Marques)

Wearing PPE she collected 53 samples of droppings from Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire and Somerset in sterile bags before releasing the tiny mammals.

Their faeces were analysed at Public Health England’s laboratory at Porton Down, near Salisbury where it was discovered one of the bats had the new sarbecovirus in its droppings.

It is the first time a sarbecovirus, which is the umbrella term for a number of viruses, including Sars-CoV-2, has been found in bats in the UK.

Many scientists believe Covid-19 probably passed to humans from a bat via an intermediary animals,

Researchers say although it is early days the findings highlight the need for robust testing for these types of viruses in bat populations around the world.

A bat cave on the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal
(Image: WESTERN MAIL)

Diana Bell, a professor at the University of East Anglia also involved in the study, said there was a danger of people coming into contact with the nocturnal creatures.

““The main risks would be for example a bat rehabilitator looking after a rescued animal and infecting it with SARS-CoV2 – which would provide an opportunity for genetic recombination if it is already carrying another sarbecovirus.

“Anyone coming into contact with bats or their droppings, such as bat rescuers or cavers, should wear appropriate [personal protective equipment] in order to reduce the risk of a mutation,” she warned.

“We need to apply stringent regulations globally for anyone handling bats and other wild animals.”

To get one positive result in just 53 samples indicates it may be common said Professor Bell, an expert in emerging zoonotic diseases from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences.

A colony of Lesser Horseshore Bats in Worcestershire
(Image: Handout)

Research into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 in humans, has focussed on horseshoe bats – but there are some 1,400 other bat species and they comprise 20 per cent of known mammals.

She said: “These bats will almost certainly have harboured this virus for a very long time – probably many thousands of years.

“We didn’t know about it before because this is the first time that such tests have been carried out in UK bats.”

According to the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species there are only around 15,000 lesser-horseshoe bats in the UK and Ivana worries about their welfare.

She said: “The plan after graduation is to do an extended study of viruses in UK bats, very similar to the one I carried out as an undergraduate.

“There is still a lot more to understand and I am extremely excited to see what else we can find out.

“I’m worried that people may suddenly start fearing and persecuting bats, which is the last thing I would want and would be unnecessary.

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