August 1, 2009

Study Shows Bats Carry Ebola Virus Cousin

Researchers reported on Friday that thousands of bats found in a cave in Uganda are infected with Marburg virus, which is a cousin of the Ebola virus.

A study by Pierre Rollin and colleagues at the Special Pathogens Branch at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that the virus is in 5 percent of the bats tested in the cave, where miners were infected with Marburg in 2005. 

According to the researchers, this strengthens the theory that mammals are natural carriers of the deadly virus.

"Our finding of active virus infection in approximately 5 percent of R. aegyptiacus bats and their population exceeding 100,000 in Kitaka cave in Uganda suggests there are likely over 5,000 Marburg virus-infected bats in this cave, which is only one of many such cave populations throughout Africa," they wrote in their report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Pathogens.

"Clearly, these bats could serve as a major source of virus with potential to initiate human epidemics, and the implications for public health are striking."

Researchers have assumed for a long time that bats are a natural reservoir of Ebola and Marburg, which both can be lethal viruses.  Ebola kills between 50 percent and 90 percent of patients diagnosed, but Marburg is not as deadly.

A natural reservoir is an animal that is infected with a virus that it carries but it does not become ill from it.

In 2007, Rollin's team tested the blood of bats in the giant cave where a miner died.

The samples came back as close genetic matches for the miners and bats, according to the research team. 

"These data indicate common Egyptian fruit bats can represent a major natural reservoir and source of Marburg virus with potential for spillover into humans," they wrote.


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