University scientists, working in conjunction with the government of Sierra Leone, have made progress on the PREDICT Ebola Host Project, with the discovery of an Ebola species in Sierra Leone’s bats before human or other animal infection.
It marks the first time scientists have discovered a new ebolavirus species in a host before its detection in other species. In this case, that virus is the Bombali virus. It has the potential to infect human cells, but further research is necessary to see if it has already caused human infections or if it is harmful to humans.
“Identifying new viruses like Bombali ebolavirus in wildlife and testing their capacity for human infection can enhance our understanding of the pre-emergent viral diversity circulating in animals,” study co-lead Simon Anthony, a virologist and assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said. “We want to discover viruses that have the genetic prerequisites for human infection and then prioritize them for further study and intervention.”
While this adds credence to the theory that bats are hosts of such viruses, the authors noted that killing bats could increase risks of viral transmission. Additionally, their role in ecological and agricultural cycles, as well as pest control, are critical.
What will be key going forward is sharing information to reduce exposure to the virus, especially since infected bats don’t tend to show signs of illness. The virus spreads through their saliva and feces.
These findings were published in the journal Nature Microbiology. Scientists from the University of California Davis’ One Health Institute and Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity, working with the government of Sierra Leone and the University of Makeni and Metabiota, contributed to the study. The work was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT project and by the National Institutes of Health.