New rodent-borne coronavirus discovered in Sweden

(ORDO NEWS) — Bats and pangolins are not the only wild animals carrying new coronaviruses. Rodents such as rats, mice, and voles can also carry viruses, which are sometimes able to cross over into our species.

Among the Swedish red-nosed bank voles (Myodes glareolus), the researchers identified a widespread and common coronavirus, which they named the Grimsø virus, after the location of its discovery.

We don’t know if the newly discovered virus is dangerous to humans in any way; however, the findings are a good reminder of why we need to be on the lookout for viruses in the wild, especially those carried by animals living in our immediate vicinity.

“We still do not know what potential threats the Grimsø virus may pose to public health. However, based on our observations and previous coronaviruses identified in bank voles, there is every reason to continue monitoring the coronavirus in wild rodents,” says virologist Eke Lundqvist from Uppsala University in Sweden.

Bank voles are one of the most common rodents found in Europe. Their paths often cross with our own species, and they are known carriers of the Puumala virus, which causes a hemorrhagic fever known as nephropathia epidemica in humans.

Seeking shelter from inclement weather, voles have been known to take refuge in human buildings, increasing our risk of infecting us with the disease they carry in our homes.

Even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lundqvist and his colleagues were trying to track diseases in wild voles to better anticipate when their viruses could spread to humans. Given the relentless pace of climate change and habitat destruction, there is every chance that our interaction with voles will only increase in the future.

Between 2015 and 2017, Uppsala researchers studied 450 wild bank voles from a site west of Stockholm called Grimsø. After testing them for coronaviruses, the team found a new betacoronavirus circulating in 3.4 percent of the samples.

Betacoronaviruses are commonly found in bats and rodents, and when they cross over to humans, they cause colds and respiratory viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.

The new vole virus has not yet crossed over into humans, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to step up disease surveillance in wildlife to prevent further outbreaks.

Over the course of three years, researchers in Sweden discovered several different strains of the Grimsø virus circulating in bank vole populations.

What’s more, other closely related coronaviruses have been widely distributed among voles in other parts of Europe such as France, Germany and Poland, suggesting that these creatures are natural reservoirs of the disease.

The high divergence of the Grimsø virus is a bad sign. He indicates that the virus easily adapts to new hosts and habitats.

The various strains found in circulation may have originally come from bank voles, or they may have passed from another species.

“Given that bank voles are one of the most common rodent species in Sweden and Europe, our results suggest that Grimsø virus may circulate widely among bank voles and indicate the importance of sentinel surveillance for coronaviruses in wild small mammals, especially among wild rodents,” the authors write.

Other studies have recently warned that human exploitation of wild spaces has directly increased the risk of animal disease spreading to humans. This risk was especially pronounced among animals such as bats, rodents and primates, which have large populations and easily adapted to the human environment.

Although rodents and bats have long been considered carriers of human disease, they are not the only animals that infectious disease specialists should watch out for.

Larger mammals such as wild deer are also in close contact with human civilization, and in the northeastern United States, approximately 40 percent of deer have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Pets such as minks have also been implicated in the COVID-19 pandemic, and researchers fear the virus could mutate among these animal hosts and re-infect us with a different version of the disease in the future.

This fear eventually led millions of farmed minks to be culled as a preventive measure. But wiping out entire populations of animals is not an acceptable solution, especially in the wild. Creating new environmental shocks will only further unbalance ecosystems, stressing more animals and creating more opportunities for viruses. Therefore, improved surveillance will be key.

If bad weather and habitat destruction worsens in the future, we could bring new coronaviruses right into our homes.”


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