Ebola... SARS.... Hendra... these diseases are often the focus of media attention fuelling public imagination and concern. Online news, and social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook help spread this fear and panic to millions, while international air transport means the potential for infectious agents to move around the world within hours is a confronting reality.
In the last two decades, some of the largest outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases, including SARS in 2003 and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014/2015, have implicated bats as their primary source.
Yet, unbelievably, there has only ever been one other book dedicated to bats and the viruses these important creatures carry and that was 40 years ago in 1974.
Today brings the publication of a new dedicated volume, “Bats and Viruses: A New Frontier of Emerging Infectious Diseases”, summarising the recent and rapid progress of research into bats and the viruses they harbour and the role bats play as hosts to many major zoonotic viruses.
The last 30 years has seen a rise in emerging infectious diseases in people, of which more than 75 per cent are zoonotic. This means that the disease in question normally exists in animals but has the potential to transmit to people. Zoonoses can be caused by many different infectious agents including bacteria, fungi and viruses.
Bats are being increasingly recognised as an important reservoir of zoonotic viruses of different families, including SARS coronavirus, Nipah virus, Hendra virus and Ebola virus. Understanding bats’ role in emerging zoonotic diseases is crucial to this rapidly expanding area of research.
As the only flying mammal on earth, the unique biological features of bats distinguish them from all other mammals. Recent studies suggest that bats’ ability to live longer and harbor a large number of viruses without displaying clinical diseases may in fact be related to the adaptation to flight.
While the physiology and biomechanics of bat flight and echolocation are relatively well understood, research on bat genomics and immunology are still in their infancy and a lot more work needs to be done to improve our knowledge in this area and potentially uncover a mechanism for disease prevention.
With recent advances in next generation sequencing, the characterisation of bat viruses have undergone exponential growth, as evident from the detailed descriptions of major bat‐borne virus groups in the dedicated individual chapters including lyssaviruses, paramyxoviruses, coronaviruses, filoviruses and reoviruses, among others.
While such advances are exciting and represent great progress, many significant challenges remain. We are still as yet to isolate a live virus from bat specimens and our understanding of the true association between viruses and bats is yet to be proven. The need to understand the emergence of new human pathogens from wild reservoirs builds a strong case for the proper biological characterisation of both viruses and their natural hosts.
However, with the pace of discovery accelerating, we look forward to a new era of research on bats and their viruses with expansion to studies on bat borne bacteria and parasites.
Edited by leaders in the field, Bats and Viruses is a timely, invaluable reference for bat researchers studying microbiology, virology and immunology, as well as infectious disease workers and epidemiologists, among others.
The book's editors are:
Professor Lin-Fa Wang, Director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore.
Christopher Cowled, Research Scientist at the CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria, Australia.