Researchers in China say they have uncovered a new batch of coronaviruses in bats that resembles the COVID-19 virus that has swept the globe.
The researchers said they collected samples from small bats that lived in forests in the Yunnan province between May 2019 and November 2020. The samples consisted of urine, feces and mouth swabs.
“In total, we assembled 24 novel coronavirus genomes from different bat species, including four SARS-CoV-2 like coronaviruses,” the researchers wrote in the journal Cell.
The researchers said one strain, garnered from the Rhinolophus pusillus bat species, bears a particularly strong resemblance to SARS-CoV-2, though with differences on the spike protein that the viruses use to attach to cells they infect.
“Together with the SARS-CoV-2 related virus collected from Thailand in June 2020, these results clearly demonstrate that viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 continue to circulate in bat populations, and in some regions might occur at a relatively high frequency,” they wrote.
The study, released Thursday, comes amid heightened attention over the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many researchers suspect the illness originated in a bat, though it is possible it passed through an intermediary animal before infecting humans.
The U.S. has also pressed for an investigation into whether the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China — a claim that has rankled Beijing.
Observers have noted that even if the virus leaked from a lab, it does not necessarily mean the virus was created in one and could have merely been studied there before a scientist left the facility while being unknowingly infected.