What's the Risk from and to European wildlife from SARS-like Coronaviruses?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: School of Veterinary Medicine and Sci


The current COVID-19 human pandemic had its origins in SE Asian wildlife, and although the natural, endemic host remains unknown (most likely bats), onward transmission from humans to other species including large outbreaks in farmed mink and cases in domestic cats keep occuring . The outbreak in mink in Europe and the USA with transmission back to humans has raised the spectre of the virus establishing itself in other animal hosts, creating a new reservoir for the virus, with potentially serious consequences for both humans and affected animals.
Europe is home to a large number of wild mustelid species, including feral mink, along with bats known to carry SARS-like viruses and cricetid rodents thought to be susceptible to SARs-CoV2. However, we currently have no idea whether any virus spill-over or circulation is occurring in these animals. This project will perform PCR based screening of faecal and lung samples from the highest risk wildlife species for SARS-CoV-2 like viruses in the UK (bats, mustelids and cricetid rodents), including retrieval of full virus sequences from any positive animals using NGS sequencing techniques (Illumina and Nanopore).

The project will determine:
a) If SARS-COV-2 spill-over from humans into wildlife is currently occurring
b) What other coronaviruses these animals are carrying

This will enable decisions to be made as to whether SARS-CoV-2 circulation in European wildlife represents a real risk to the human population and/or to wildlife, and if monitoring or mitigation programmes are necessary


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Description Results from screening 517 UK bat and 379 mustelid and cricetid rodent samples from a variety of UK wildlife (badgers, otters, water voles, bank voles, field voles, greater and lesser horseshoe bats, stoats, pine marten, weasels and mink) have demonstrated no SARS-CoV-2 detection. Four out of fourteen stoat samples were positive for an alphacoronavirus related to previously described ferret and mink coronaviruses (full sequences lodged with genbank, accession numbers PRJNA897822 ) which we would expect them to carry naturally. Of the bat samples 44% of individual faecal samples from lesser horseshoe bats tested positive for a coronavirus previously reported in UK lesser horseshoe bats (accession numbers PRNJNA895830, OP776338, OP776339, OP776340. This virus does not have sequence characteristics of zoonotic sarbecoviruses. No greater horseshoe bats tested positive (or any other bats).

This is reassuring in terms of risks to the UK human and animal population, particularly in the light of the recent multiple publications on SARS-COV-2 in white tailed deer in the USA. We are not seeing the very high levels of spill over they are seeing in the US deer or during the mink farm outbreaks or the recent outbreak in hamsters in hong kong (voles are the same group of rodents as hamsters).
The UK lesser horseshoe bat virus is widespread across the population and does not appear to be zoonotic, its impact on the species and why we did not find it in the greater horseshoe bats (which share roost sites) remains to be explored in future research
Exploitation Route The project has provided critical data on relative risk in wildlife species for SARS-CoV-2 spill over. The data has being fed directly into DEFRA policy groups and fed back to sample submitters from bat and mammal conservation groups with multiple public seminars. The data is currently being prepared for publication
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Healthcare

Description The work we are doing has been reported directly to DEFRA to form a risk assessment of low risk of SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife in the UK. This is in stark contrast to the situation with deer in the USA, the differences for which appear to be to do with population density of susceptible hosts rather than inherent host susceptibility (based on limited data on receptor usage). We have reported the work back to multiple submitter wildlife groups in public seminars and media commentary.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Healthcare
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Pump Priming Collaboration between UK and EU Partners
Amount £7,115 (GBP)
Funding ID PPHE210278 
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 07/2022
Title Sequence data UK bats and stoats 
Description Illumina mRNA sequence of stoat and bat samples with derivative coronaviruses 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Provision of further wildlife coronavirus sequences to the sequencing databases 
URL https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sra/PRJNA780532
Description SARS-CoV-2 in Wildlife Workshop (for UK researchers) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop for UK research groups involved in animal monitoring or testing in the UK. Presentation of data from monitoring and research projects in this area from UKRI/EU/DEFRA/PHE funded research projects. Representation from DEFRA scientists, PHE, University academic groups and UKRI research insitutes. The primary purpose of the day is to facilitate information sharing on the current situation with which animal species we are seeing SARS-CoV-2 spill over into in the UK, share best practice (or lessons learnt) on testing and monitoring, decrease duplicated research efforts, ensure more co-ordinated messaging to wildlife care groups and to begin to build larger consortia for follow up work to the current (very scattered) projects. Co-hosted by myself and Dan Horton at Surrey (UK co-ordinator of the EU funded COVRIN project). It has already acheived some of its aims in getting different government groups to share data with each other on deer monitoring (instead of attempting separate monitoring efforts) .
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Somerset badger group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact talk to wildlife carer groups (some of whom had submitted samples) about the research outcomes
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Talk to kent mammal and bat carer groups about SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to regional bat and mammal carer groups about the risks and mitigations for SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife. Dissemination of current research knowledge to people at the coal face of risk for spill over. Some of these people have also submitted samples to our research project and we will be delivering the preliminary results to them
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022