Of the viruses they identified among the hundreds of bats tested in Vientiane Province, three were found to closely resemble the virus that causes Covid-19, particularly in the mechanism for latching on to human cells.
“The idea was to try to identify the origin of this pandemic,” Marc Eloit, who leads the Pasteur Institute’s pathogen discovery laboratory, told AFP.
Eloit, whose team analyzed the samples collected, said there were still key differences between the viruses found and SARS-CoV-2.
But he said the work was “a major step forward” in identifying the pandemic’s origin, confirming the theory that the coronavirus that has spread across the world could have started with living bats.
The authors of the study, which has been submitted to Nature for peer review, warned that their findings suggest the new viruses “seem to have the same potential for infecting humans as early strains of SARS-CoV-2”.
“People working in caves, such as guano collectors, or certain ascetic religious communities who spend time in or very close to caves, as well as tourists who visit the caves, are particularly at risk of being exposed,” the authors said.