Field of Science

Don't just focus on bats and their viruses

Spot the bat
I just wanted to alert people to this opinion piece on an Australian website discussing the role that bats play in harboring deadly viruses. This isn't an ordinary piece, it was written by a guy called Linfa Wang. You may not have heard of him but he's a pretty important person in virology, especially if you're interested in bats and their microbes. He is the head of virology at Australia's Animal Health Laboratory and is an expert in finding new bat viruses.

In the article, Dr Wang highlights the countless times that the human population has experienced a viral outbreak that has eventually been tracked down to bats, think of: SARS, ebola, marburg, hendra and nipah. These outbreaks have resulted in hundreds of human and animal deaths and continue to be a frightening medical and economic spectre hanging over our species.

But should we, like he states, focus on bats? Are they special? Do they deserve more attention than other virus-laden species? This is a very important question; as the world continues to change and we find ourselves living increasingly closer with other animals how best are we to focus our limited resources (remember that this work costs lots and lots of money to taxpayers) to predict and ultimately prevent future epidemics?

Cross-species transmission of viruses can general occur from anywhere: birds, rodents, primates, farm animals and of course bats. But bats aren't particularly special I guess when you look at the grand picture - yes a lot of recent outbreaks have centered on bat populations - and we should still recognise the continual power of them to spread potentially deadly microbes into other species - but a complete focus on this species is bound to get us in trouble in the future. We should be focusing on a more general picture of viruses in the environment - any concentration on a particular species will limit our view of all other potential sources of infection. We should be following these guys.

How best do you think we should focus our limited resources in combating emerging pathogens in the future?


  1. I seem to remember civet cats coming up a fair amount when I was studying deadly infectious diseases. The limited set of animals passing on the diseases certainly made it easier for revision!

    The link is fascinating. I'll take a good look around there when I'm not at work...

  2. The flip side is to try to understand why bats are capable of being reservoirs to so many highly pathogenic viruses. It is plausible that bats are special. For instance, if the bat immune system has evolved to control the replication these viruses, while avoiding the severe immunopathology associated with many of these viruses, then bats may be the perfect host. If this is the case, and bats are uniquely capable of transmitting viruses that can be highly pathogenic in mammals, then the focus on bats may be warranted.


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