How bats can help shed light on deadly diseases

CSIRO's bat virology team investigates bat immunology and the relationship between bats and the viruses they carry to assist in developing strategies to help prevent, or control, the spread of disease from bats to other animals and people.

The Challenge

The threat of zoonotic viruses

Viral diseases that spread from animals to people – known as zoonotic viruses – are proving to be highly unpredictable in terms of emergence, host range and speed of spread, posing a great threat to the health of our people and animals.

CSIRO is undertaking research to help control the spread of viruses from bats.

While some of the most deadly zoonotic viruses originate in bats (for example Hendra virus and Ebola), bats are merely carriers of the virus and rarely develop the disease themselves. One aspect of research is focusing on how bats are able to tolerate the viruses that are fatal in livestock and people.

Bats have lived in colonies in undisturbed habitats for millions of years however, as we invade those habitats we increase the risk of viruses that live in harmony with the bats, spilling over to new hosts.

The spill-over effect

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003 is a perfect example of a previously unknown virus causing worldwide chaos as it spread from China to Hong Kong and as far as Canada. Scientists believe that a SARS-like virus was dormant in bats for some time before a chance mutation occurred in another host, the civet cat, almost certainly infected from bats in a live animal market. This wild cat is commonly consumed as food in Southern China and other Asian countries and it is believed that the trading and consumption of this animal species is how the SARS epidemic started.

These types of chance events demonstrate the ability of a virus to mutate and become deadly for existing and new hosts, known as ‘host switching’. Our ongoing research into bat-borne viruses and further understanding of host switching, is where we believe the answers lie in being able to predict the future spread of new and emerging infectious diseases.

While in many cases host-switching events go unnoticed, as no disease develops in the new host, in other situations the virus adapts to the new species and causes severe illness or death.

Our Response

The bat team

The bat virology team, located at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong Victoria, is dedicated to discovering the mysteries associated with bats and the relationship they have with the viruses they carry.

Major disease outbreaks over the past two decades that have been found to have originated in bats include Hendra, Nipah, Ebola, Marburg, Melaka and SARS. Hendra and Nipah are among the deadliest animal viruses as they are fatal in around 50-70 per cent of people and animals infected.

The Results

Staying a step ahead

As the world continues to change, it is expected that entirely unknown bat viruses will emerge. The challenge is to get ahead of the viruses before they are given the opportunity to jump into new hosts.

A better understanding of virus-bat interactions will help lead to the development of faster, more sensitive diagnostic and new surveillance tools that may radically change the risk management of emerging infectious diseases within Australia and around the world.

That will mean that we can progress from just responding when an outbreak occurs, to putting pre-emergence surveillance and prevention strategies in place. Similar to a weather or earthquake forecast, if we can develop a system to provide virus forecasts, we will be far more prepared and capable of containing the spread of disease.

The more we can learn about bat-borne viruses, the better chance we have of identifying strategies to better control them such as developing anti-virals and vaccines to help protect people, our livestock industry and our export trade from the threat of current and emerging animal diseases. Significant progress has already been made with the CSIRO-developed Hendra virus vaccine for horses.

Ongoing research will help enhance Australia’s biosecurity and limit the wide ranging impacts that a new disease can have in our closely interconnected and highly mobile world.

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