In 2002/2003, a novel coronavirus (CoV) caused a pandemic, infecting more than 8000 people, of whom nearly 10% died. This virus, termed severe acute respiratory syndrome-CoV was linked to a zoonotic origin from rhinolophid bats in 2005. Since then, numerous studies have described novel bat CoVs, including close relatives of the newly emerging Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-CoV. In this paper we discuss CoV genomic properties and compare different taxonomic approaches in light of the technical difficulties of obtaining full genomic sequences directly from bat specimens. We first present an overview of the available studies on bat CoVs, with details on their chiropteran hosts, then comparatively analyze the increase in bat CoV studies and novel genomic sequences obtained since the SARS pandemic. We then conduct a comprehensive phylogenetic analysis of the genera Alpha- and Betacoronavirus, to show that bats harbour more CoV diversity than other mammalian hosts and are widely represented in most, but not all parts of the tree of mammalian CoVs. We next discuss preliminary evidence for phylogenetic co-segregation of CoVs and bat hosts encompassing the Betacoronavirus clades b and d, with an emphasis on the sampling bias that exists among bat species and other mammals, then present examples of CoVs infecting different hosts on the one hand and viruses apparently confined to host genera on the other. We also demonstrate a geographic bias within available studies on bat CoVs, and identify a critical lack of information from biodiversity hotspots in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We then present evidence for a zoonotic origin of four of the six known human CoVs (HCoV), three of which likely involved bats, namely SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and HCoV-229E; compare the available data on CoV pathogenesis in bats to that in other mammalian hosts; and discuss hypotheses on the putative insect origins of CoV ancestors. Finally, we suggest caution with conclusions on the zoonotic potential of bat viruses, based only on genomic sequence data, and emphasize the need to preserve these ecologically highly relevant animals. This paper forms part of a symposium in Antiviral Research on "from SARS to MERS: 10years of research on highly pathogenic human coronaviruses".
Keywords: Alphacoronavirus; Bats; Betacoronavirus; Coronaviridae; Taxonomy; Zoonosis.
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