Coronavirus: Scientists find two viruses related to COVID-19 outside of China

Viruses closely related to the one currently causing death and misery across the globe have been discovered in Cambodia and in Japan.

But luckily, not in the wild. 

The first was found in horseshoe bats which have been stored in a freezer in Cambodia since 2010, reports Nature. The second was found in a little Japanese horseshoe bat captured in 2013.

They're the first viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 found outside of China, where the current pandemic began at the end of 2019.

SARS-CoV-2, responsible for the disease COVID-19, is widely believed to have originated in bats before making the leap to humans, perhaps via another animal. 

The genome of the Cambodian virus is yet to be fully sequenced, but is expected to shine some light on how the family of coronaviruses has evolved. Parts that have been looked at so far show similarities. 

The Japanese one shares 81 percent of its genome with SARS-CoV-2, Nature reported - making it a distant relative, but related nonetheless.

Alice Latinne, an evolutionary biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society Vietnam in Hanoi, told Nature the finds were exciting - they prove for the first time viruses like SARS-CoV-2 can be found in bats in other parts of the world than China. 

Other scientists said there could be others waiting to be discovered. Before now, the only other known relative was RaTG13, found in China in 2013. It shares about 96 percent of its genome with SARS-CoV-2, meaning they diverged about 40 to 70 years ago

"SARS-CoV-2 probably wasn't a brand new virus that popped up all of a sudden," said Tracey Goldstein, associate director of the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis.

"Viruses in this group existed before we became aware of them in 2019."

While RaTG13 is likely to have the ability to infect people, it's unclear if either of the new ones do - the Cambodian one, for example, is yet to have its spike protein closely examined. 

If the Cambodian virus shares more of its genome with SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13 does, it's likely to be the direct ancestor - providing valuable insight into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.