LONDON, ONT. -- A team of computer scientists and biologists at Western University says their data concurs with the belief bats are the origin of COVID-19.

The conclusion comes after high-powered computers at the university analyzed the 29 SARS-CoV2 RNA sequences against 5,300 known viruses in animals.

The study was co-led by Western Biology Professor Kathleen Hill and University of Waterloo Computer Science Professor Lila Kari with the support of students at Western and Waterloo.

Hill says, within a short period of time, the computer answered the main question researchers had.

"We just asked [the computer], ‘What’s the closest neighbour?’ So, given a DNA sequence, and a big ancestry of DNA sequences from 5,300 viruses, asked, ‘These 29 viral sequences, who is their closest relatives?’ And the closest relatives given were viruses in bats."

The Western-led research team is not the first in the world to link bats to the deadly virus.

But, Hill says they are the fastest, and that could be important as work on treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19 continue.

"What we’ve done with the DNA is turned into a language the computer can understand. It’s numbers. And that allows the computers to read a DNA sequence far faster than I can."

Hill says the speed of the computer could help researchers - around the globe - as they try to get one step ahead of COVID-19.

She says the virus has thousands of letters in its genome. 

To combat it, Hill says the program her team developed will be shared online, permitting worldwide researchers to use the technology to get answers - quickly.

Sharing between scientists, Hill believes, is the key to beating the virus.

"The world could know that those scientists are moving forward. They are working together. They are sharing their stories and looking for creative ways to do things, in a new way, in a faster way, thinking outside the box."


A previous version of this story listed only a single lead investigator on the study, we regret the error.