Bats carry a large diversity of viruses that could potentially cause pandemic outbreaks of serious respiratory diseases in humans, researchers say.
Their five-year study covered 20 countries on three continents. The researchers found that bats carry a large number of coronaviruses. This family of viruses causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS).
The researchers tested more than 19,000 bats, rodents, primates and people in areas where the risk of animal-to-human coronavirus transmission is greatest. These areas include places where deforestation has occurred, as well as animal sanctuaries and regions popular for ecotourism.
The research team identified 100 different coronaviruses. It found that more than 98 percent of the animals harboring these viruses were bats from 282 bat species.
High numbers of coronaviruses were concentrated in areas with the most bat species. This suggests that different types of coronaviruses co-evolved with or adapted to certain bat species, the researchers said.
“This study fills in a huge gap in what we know about the diversity of coronaviruses in animal hosts,” said study first author Simon Anthony. He is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.
“Charting the geographic and genetic diversity of coronaviruses in animals is a critical first step towards understanding and anticipating which specific viruses could pose a threat to human health,” he said in a school news release.
The researchers emphasized that their findings should not be interpreted as a call to kill off bats. Bats play an important role in the ecosystem. And most of the coronaviruses bats carry are harmless to humans.
“Our goal is to shed light on the ecology of virus-host interactions to better understand and address the conditions that give rise to outbreaks like SARS and MERS,” said study senior author Tracey Goldstein. She’s an associate professor at the University of California, Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.
The study was published recently in the journal Virus Evolution.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on coronaviruses.