A bat specie may be the source of Ebola Zaire

The huge Ebola epidemic that struck West Africa between 2013 and 2016 took the world by surprise. The virus had never been found in the region; all previous Ebola outbreaks were in countries in Central Africa or Sudan. And it posed a mystery: Where did the virus, called Ebola Zaire, come from?

Near the mouth of an abandoned mineshaft in Liberia, they caught a bat that was likely infected with Ebola Zaire. The researchers didn’t isolate the virus itself but found about one-fifth of its genome in the animal. “This is an important new lead and it should be followed up extensively,” says Fabian Leendertz, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin who was not involved in the work.

The results have yet to be published; they were announced today by Tolbert Nyenswah, director of the National Public Health Institute of Liberia, at a press conference in Monrovia. The Liberian government and other PREDICT partners “felt that this was an important finding to bring to the public irrespective of a scientific publication,” says team member Simon Anthony, a virologist at Columbia University.

In Liberia, a country of about 4 million people, the virus sickened more than 10,000 people and killed almost half of them; another 6,500 people died in Sierra Leone and Guinea. Many people in West Africa fear a return of the virus. A press release by the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare today stressed—three times, in bold type—that there are no known human Ebola cases in the country at the moment. (A separate outbreak of Ebola Zaire in the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thousands of kilometers away, has killed more than 400 people since August 2018 and has become the second biggest epidemic of the virus on record.)

The viral RNA fragments were found in an oral swab from a greater long-fingered bat (Miniopterus inflatus), captured in 2016 in Liberia‘s Sanniquellie-Mahn District, which borders Guinea. The bat, which lives in many parts of Africa, roosts in caves and feeds on insects. Scientists had previously found two other Ebola species in a related insect-eating bat, M. schreibersii. However, most other evidence has pointed to fruit bats as the carriers of Ebola Zaire, Epstein says. “What it really says to me is that this is a virus that has multiple hosts, and it might be regionally dependent as to which species carries it“.

Leendertz agrees that the idea of a single reservoir species is probably too simple. The situation may turn out to be similar to avian influenza, which is maintained in nature by various duck species and wading birds, says Vincent Munster, a virus ecologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana.

With info from Science Mag


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