Scientists estimate the current ancestor for all coronaviruses dates back to 8000BC but analysis of bat guano found on NZ’s Whenua hou (Codfish Island) shows that despite millions of years of isolation the viruses present in NZ short-tailed bats look similar to coronaviruses found in other countries today.

Recent findings from a study by ESR (Institute of Environmental Science and Research) working with the Department of Conservation and Landcare Research (LCR), may prove that viruses are millions of years older than previously thought and cause scientists to rethink how to predict and tackle them.

Despite there being no other native NZ land mammals, very little analysis of micro-organisms in NZ bats has been done in the last ten years as it was believed that our geographic isolation provided an almost sterile ‘untouched’ environment.

ESR Senior Scientist Richard Hall says more research will be needed to determine just where this coronavirus came from but that these results support a theory that such viruses don’t develop rapidly in nature when left on their own. 

“It’s more likely that human interference such as urbanisation and changing animal husbandry practices are what drive changes in viruses and allow them to jump between species and cause emerging diseases.

“It’s always much easier to deal with animal health issues when you know what viruses are already present so these results will help protect all New Zealand wildlife,” Dr Hall says. 

LCR Research Leader Dr Dan Tompkins says it would be intriguing to do a similar assessment of what’s present in other wild mammals in New Zealand.

“Not only will this study help us work out where the virus found here came from, it will prepare us better for any disease emergence risks both within New Zealand and globally,” Dr Tompkins says.

The results are due to be published in the distinguished international Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) journal “Emerging Infectious Diseases” this month.

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