Coronaviruses play an important role as pathogens of humans and animals, and the emergence of epidemics like SARS, MERS and COVID-19 is closely linked to zoonotic transmission events primarily from wild animals. Bats have been found to be an important source of coronaviruses with some of them having the potential to infect humans, with other animals serving as intermediate or alternate hosts or reservoirs. Host diversity may be an important contributor to viral diversity and thus the potential for zoonotic events. To date, limited research has been done in Africa on this topic, in particular in the Congo Basin despite frequent contact between humans and wildlife in this region. We sampled and, using consensus coronavirus PCR-primers, tested 3,561 wild animals for coronavirus RNA. The focus was on bats (38%), rodents (38%), and primates (23%) that posed an elevated risk for contact with people, and we found coronavirus RNA in 121 animals, of which all but two were bats. Depending on the taxonomic family, bats were significantly more likely to be coronavirus RNA-positive when sampled either in the wet (Pteropodidae and Rhinolophidae) or dry season (Hipposideridae, Miniopteridae, Molossidae, and Vespertilionidae). The detected RNA sequences correspond to 15 alpha- A nd 6 betacoronaviruses, with some of them being very similar (>95% nucleotide identities) to known coronaviruses and others being more unique and potentially representing novel viruses. In seven of the bats, we detected RNA most closely related to sequences of the human common cold coronaviruses 229E or NL63 (>80% nucleotide identities). The findings highlight the potential for coronavirus spillover, especially in regions with a high diversity of bats and close human contact, and reinforces the need for ongoing surveillance.
ASJC Scopus subject areas