Learning about bats and viruses

Michael Letko, an assistant professor of molecular virology at Washington State University, says that gaining a better understanding of bats could help curb the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent future issues.

Scientists have found the coronavirus pandemic is likely connected to bat populations coming into contact with humans, and one Washington State University virologist says understanding these animals better could help curb the current crisis — and prevent the next one.

WSU Assistant Professor of Molecular Virology Michael Letko said bats carry countless viruses and other pathogens that potentially have a strong effect on global human health and disease. While researchers in the past 20 years have deepened knowledge of different bat species and their relationship to the spread of disease — and produced a few success stories — Letko said science has still barely scratched the surface. In a recent article published in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology, Letko and colleagues called for renewed funding for such research, saying there’s still much more to be understood.

“The idea would be that if we have a better idea of the types of viruses that are there and what kind of threats are looming, we can already have stuff like vaccines in the works,” Letko said. “Luckily for SARS, we kind of did because we saw this a little bit in the past, but you can see how over the 20 years since (SARS-CoV-1) we’ve lost interest, funding-wise, scientific-wise, publicity-wise, and then we stopped working on those things.”

Following an outbreak of SARS-CoV-1 in 2003, Letko explained progress was made on a vaccine but that work stalled out in phase 1 clinical trials as interest — and funding — dried up.

As human development continues to encroach on wild spaces, Letko warned people will be coming into contact with wild animals more and more, increasing the risk that disease will jump to a human host.

Letko said the hope is that if scientists can learn more about bat population’s relationship to the spread of disease in humans, they can assemble concrete mitigation techniques to help prevent the next pandemic.

With more than 1,300 species spanning every continent, Letko said bats are the second-most abundant mammal on the planet — meaning they’re a good animal to sample when studying how and which diseases in animals may make the jump to a human host. He said their migratory and social behaviors are likely a factor as well.

Letko said historically, bat populations have been linked not only to SARS but MERS, ebola and nipah viruses as well. Due in part to this body of research, Letko noted scientists had studied and fretted over the potential of coronaviruses to cause a global crisis years before COVID-19 became a problem.

“It just seems to be a trend that for a small set of them, they can infect human cells so that means that these things are going to come up again,” he said. “If we can take that information and then say, ‘Okay, let’s make a broader vaccine towards this whole group of viruses,’ then you can actually take this knowledge now and apply it to something to reduce (risk).”

Letko said it’s no use pointing fingers. He said narratives placing the blame for the current pandemic on specific groups is misleading at best.

He said in order for the world to conquer the current pandemic and prepare itself for the next one, research needs to be done today.

“Hindsight is always 20-20. It’s easy to say we should have been studying this and yeah, there are a lot of signs that said we should have been studying this maybe more than then we gave it credit for,” he said. “But it’s always hard to say what the next one is going to be and it takes so much effort and time to actually learn about these viruses.”

Scott Jackson can be reached by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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