27th June 2023

New research on viruses in British bat species

(c) Hugh Clark

Novel scientific methods are enabling the discovery of viruses at an ever-increasing rate (see previous article on this topic). A new scientific paper titled Genomic screening of 16 UK native bat species through conservationist networks uncovers coronaviruses with zoonotic potential, using new research methods, was published in Nature Communications today. Using samples collected by bat conservationists, this new research has uncovered two previously undescribed coronaviruses along with two that were already known in five of the 16 British bat species tested. None of these viruses are capable of infecting humans. Laboratory-based testing has revealed that one of the coronaviruses, found in a sample from one species, was able to bind to a molecule found on the surface of human cells but with very low efficiency and in highly artificial conditions.

Misinformation misrepresents research

Unfortunately, some media outlets are misunderstanding and misrepresenting the results of this important research which can cause unnecessary alarm and undermine wildlife conservation. Misleading reporting is damaging to the multidisciplinary collaborative work being done by conservationists, researchers and public health professionals. Fear generated by media misinformation has also been shown to directly lead to the persecution of vulnerable wildlife.

It is important that this fear does not prevent scientists and conservationists from collaborating. Lisa Worledge, Head of Conservation Services at the Bat Conservation Trust, said: “New techniques such as the one used in this paper are increasing our understanding and highlight the importance of protecting nature. This work provides a great example of researchers and conservationists working together for the wider good.

“Beyond reducing the chances of zoonosis, we know that protecting wildlife brings many other benefits. From providing ecosystem services such as controlling insects that damage crops through to the simple joy of watching bats on a summer’s night, bats are a vital part of our natural heritage.”

Is this research necessary?

BCT is committed to ensuring that conservation policy, practice and guidance is based on a robust scientific evidence base. As such we welcome research that fills blanks in our knowledge and improves our understanding.

Is there a reason for concern?

Zoonoses are human diseases of animal origin. Zoonotic spillover happens when a pathogen is transmitted from an animal to a human, often through an intermediary species. Human infection requires the virus to be able to infect human cells, and to cause an outbreak, it must then be able to spread between humans.

For such an event to happen, pathogens must overcome a whole series of barriers that would otherwise prevent spillover infections into humans. The greatest danger comes from human alterations to the environment and habitat destruction or disturbance which can remove some of these barriers. For example, destruction of habitats and subsequent intensive livestock farming in the cleared land. This process brings wildlife into closer contact with humans and livestock than would naturally happen, providing the opportunity for a spillover event. Protecting wildlife and their habitats can reduce the risk of zoonotic disease and help protect human health.

Bats and human health

Bats are the second largest order of mammals (by number of species), and their diversity means they can host a range of viruses. However, bats don’t appear to host any more zoonotic viruses than any other groups of animals (mammals and birds) of similar species diversity (See: Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts). The discovery of new viruses in any animal, just as in humans, is expected when scientists start to look. Regular surveillance of viruses in humans, domestic animals and wildlife has been widely recognised as highly beneficial to protect human and animal health. In fact, BCT has been supporting the Animal & Plant Health Agency rabies passive surveillance programme for a number of years. We welcome research in this area that will benefit biodiversity conservation and help with public health preparedness.

What are the implications of this new research?

The only known zoonotic disease associated with bats in Britain is rabies caused by infection with a European Bat Lyssavirus (EBLV) (the classical rabies virus has never been found in a bat in Europe). There are no other known zoonotic diseases associated with bat populations in the UK.

Could the next pandemic originate in UK bats?

From the evidence and understanding we currently have this is highly unlikely and improbable.

Does this research suggest any preventative action should be taken?

BCT already recommends the best practice guidelines so that anyone handling bats wears gloves (Bats and Rabies) and follows the latest IUCN guidelines. Bats, like any wild animal, should normally only be handled by trained experts, but we have guidance for anyone who finds a grounded or injured bat on our advice pages.

Should people/animals avoid being anywhere near UK bats?

The only known zoonotic disease found in UK bats that can be passed from bats to people is rabies, caused by European Bat Lyssaviruses (EBLV) which have been found in a small number of bats. There is no risk if you do not handle bats. The risk of catching EBLV from a bat in the UK is very small and can be further reduced by following the guidance on our website.

What have bats ever done for us?

There are over 1,400 species of bats in the world, making up 20% of all mammal species. We have 18 resident species which make up 25% of British mammals. Bats play vital roles in ecosystems, performing functions such as suppressing agricultural pests. For example, Mexican free-tailed bats in central Texas save cotton farmers in that area more than $740,000 annually; in Thailand bats benefit rice farmers estimated at the equivalent of supplying rice to 26,000 people per year (an economic value of more than $1.2 million); bats suppress pest-associated fungal growth and mycotoxin in corn crops and it is estimated this is worth more than $1 billion globally on this crop alone.

In the UK, bats are indicator species, because changes to our bat populations can indicate changes in other aspects of biodiversity or the environment which we all ultimately depend on. For example, bats might suffer when there are problems with insect populations because our native bats feed on insects, or when habitats are destroyed or poorly managed - for example, some bats only live in mature and connected woodlands.

Bats can contribute to human health in a positive way. Protecting bats and their habitats can actually reduce the risk of zoonotic disease and lead to advances in human health care. Bat immune systems are very different to other mammals (including humans). Researchers have found that, accounting for size, bats can live far longer than other mammal species. In fact, there are many aspects of bats' ability to fight disease that researchers believe could ultimately lead to advances in human health care. We are already seeing life-saving benefits from studying bats; Draculin is an anti-coagulant that is based on a formula derived from vampire bat saliva aiding treatment in stroke victims. You can read more HERE.

Expert reaction to study of the zoonotic potential of coronaviruses in UK bats https://www.sciencemediacentre...