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Into a Cave: Enhancing Surveillance in Malaysia

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Bat viruses surveillance helps to increase safety of ecotourism in Wind Cave Nature Reserve, Sarawak, Malaysia

Since 2002 and the emergence of new types of coronavirus, bats have been known to be hosting several viruses including coronaviruses, astroviruses, enteroviruses or others. As many of these are of public health concern, a team of experts devoted eight months to the identification bat-coronaviruses in Wind Cave, Bau, Sarawak, Malaysia. Wind Cave is a known ecotourism spot that draws thousands of tourists annually to its cool windy cavern that is home to many swiftlets and bats.

The project was led by Cheng Siang Tan of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, and conducted from the 1st of October 2020 to the 31st of May 2021 and it was funded by the Small Grant Program of SEAOHUN. As a first step, a Bio-risk management workshop has been held and the personnel involved in the project has been vaccinated against rabies prior to the sampling. The team collected hundreds of guano samples over 5-day period, but only tested 21 pooled guano samples for the presence of Bat-CoV (bat-coronavirus).

It was found that nearly 50% if the guano were positive for coronaviruses. Genomic analyses have revealed that the coronaviruses belong to alphacoronavirus and betacoronavirus that are unique to the island of Borneo. One betacoronavirus is genetically related to Sarbecovirus, a subgenus that includes the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 but the risk of transmission from bats to humans is thought to be low. Nevertheless, the team recommend to the people who do get in close contact with bats and their excreta to be cautious and to practice universal biosafety precautions (wash hands, avoid direct contact, etc.) to minimize the risk of infection. Moreover, they recommend to avoid the consumption of bat meat or the use of it for traditional medicine to prevent risks of spillover.

This project has been particularly relevant for One Health because it helps understand and prevent potential risk of coronaviruses spillover from the bats who live in these caves to the tourists who explore the caverns, and the community that uses bat meat.

SEAOHUN 2020 Small Grants

Project team leader: Dr. Cheng Siang Tan (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak)

Team members: Dr Faisal Ali bin Anwarali Khan (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak)

Dr Jaya Seelan A/L Sathiya Seelan (Universiti Malaysia Sabah)

Mr Azroie Denel (Sarawak Forestry Corporation)

- Personal protective equipment, distancing, and group size standards in this photo were consistent with local public health guidance and COVID-19 status in the specific country and time it was taken. This may not reflect best practices for all locations where COVID-19 is still spreading. -


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