Scientists hope Zimbabwe caves hold the secret to rapid coronavirus tests


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Scientists scouring two bat-filled cave systems in Zimbabwe have identified different types of coronaviruses, a development which could help us better understand how pathogens spread from animals to humans.

The research, carried out by French and Zimbabwean teams, discovered coronaviruses in two colonies of insectivorous and cavernous micro-bats in the Kwekwe and Hurungwe districts.

People from nearby communities regularly visit the caves to collect bat guano for use as fertiliser on their crops.

The research is being carried out by the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), the University of Zimbabwe and the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD).

“What we know is that bats carry lots of different kinds of coronaviruses,” said IRD virologist and project leader Dr Florian Liégeois.

“This [SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19] is not the first coronavirus to cross the boundary between animal and human. Some years ago it was the MERS-CoV, just before it was the SARS-1 and we also have four other coronavirus strains which are very common in the human population.”

Humans have known about some of these strains for 60 years, he said.

“We know now we can have different coronaviruses which can [effect] cross-species transmission.”

Liégeois said the work being carried out in Zimbabwe was not about the SARS-Cov2 virus specifically, but on the genetic diversity of the different coronaviruses which are carried by bats.

The research would help develop molecular and serological tools to be able to detect the new virus rapidly, he said.

“The idea behind our project is to be able to design new tools quickly to be able to detect all these viruses in the human or domestic animal populations. This is our first aim.”

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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