Other coronaviruses are present in bats and the deadly illnesses already have the capacity to pass over to humans, a prominent Chinese virologist has said.

Dr Shi Zhengli, from the city of Wuhan in China - where the Covid-19 outbreak originated - made the breakthrough discovery that the new illness was similar to SARS.

The Chinese scientist, of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said these viruses, including close relatives of Sars-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, were likely to be circulating in nature across south Asia.

Dr Zhengli said: “We should not only search for them in China, but also in south Asian countries.”

Dr Shi Zhengli, a virologist known as China's 'Bat Woman'

She made the comments at a webinar organised by the French medical and veterinary academies, The Guardian reports.

Dr Zhengli’s group has so far failed to detect the virus in farm animals or wildlife they have sampled around Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

Although Sars-CoV-2 is thought to have originated in bats, Dr Zhengli - who has been referred to as “Bat Woman” because of her research around the illness in the species, said it was most probably passed to humans from an intermediate host which is yet to be identified.

Pangolins – a scaly mammal that looks like an anteater – have been believed to have provided the key "staging post".

Dr Shi says other coronaviruses could already be circulating in nature

Dr Zhengli said that, whatever animal was the intermediary host, Sars-CoV-2 could have been in it “for a very long time”.

Prof Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney, agreed that the virus could have been in an intermediate host for a long time, and perhaps even in humans for a few months before it was reported.

“It is perfectly possible that the initial cross-species transmission event did not happen in or around Wuhan itself,” said Holmes, who was not at the webinar.

“It may not even have happened in Hubei province, although there are obviously a huge number of possible animals to test to resolve this.”

Dr Zhengli has been called one of the most renowned experts on the coronavirus

Within days of the outbreak, Dr Zhengli carried out tests and confirmed that the killer bug was 96% identical to a virus found in horseshoe bats.

For a crucial seven-day period, China held back information about the growing crisis from the rest of the world as more Chinese started to die in Wuhan, Dr Shi Zhengli alleges.

She claims she was stopped from reporting her findings, prompting fears of a massive cover-up by Chinese authorities.

With 16 years of virology experience, Dr Zhengli has been called one of the most renowned experts on the coronavirus.

She sequenced the disease in its earliest stages, finding it to be similar to the deadly SARS virus that had blighted China in the early 2000s.