Oct 10, 2020 - Science

A bat signal for pandemics

A researcher holds up a wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bat in Thailand.

A researcher holds up a wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bat in Thailand. Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

A new study makes the case for more research to understand how bats are connected to emerging infectious diseases.

Why it matters: Bats have been the likely animal reservoir for a number of emerging viruses, including the novel coronavirus. Better understanding the role they play in disease ecology could help us head off the next pandemic.

How it works: The bat immune system limits virus-induced inflammation, which may allow them to tolerate more viruses than other mammals, researchers note in the new paper, published in Science.

  • Combine that with their dense population and highly social behavior — which puts them in contact with humans — and bats seem to be the perfect animal agents for viral spillovers.

Yes, but: "We seem to be lacking really strong, compelling evidence that the viruses of bats are more diverse or more prone to infect humans or more dangerous when they do infect humans than viruses of other animals," Daniel Streicker, a vampire bat researcher at the University of Glasgow and co-author of the study, told the New York Times.

  • To answer that question, the researchers argue, we need to create a "meta-network" of bat research that includes geneticists, immunologists and ecologists who can better understand how bats and their viruses interact with humans.

The bottom line: New human diseases almost always start with animals, and until we know better, bats should be the first on the list.

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