Could some of humanity's deadliest viruses have come from eating bats?

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Bats can scare people — apparently enough to inspire Bruce Wayne to dress up as one to fight crime. And now, researchers are increasingly discovering what might be good reason to fear bats — they could be the source of a dizzying array of lethal viruses.

And it could be our own fault. At least one of the deadliest viruses to affict the human race recently could have come from bat-eating. Ozzy Osbourne has a lot to answer for.

Scientists have discovered that bats can harbor paramyxoviruses, a large virus family that includes measles, mumps, pneumonias and colds. Two extremely dangerous paramyxoviruses linked with bats, nipah and hendra, can cause brain inflammation killing half of all patients. (The bats themselves apparently suffer no ill effects from the diseases.)


To learn more about the origins of these viruses, researchers tested 9,278 animals from Europe, South America and Asia, including 86 bat and 33 rodent species. They estimate they discovered more than 60 new paramyxoviruses, about doubling the known number, said researcher Christian Drosten, head of the Institute for Virology at the University of Bonn.

Analyzing how similar and different the genes for these viruses were helped the researchers to create family trees for them. "Our analysis shows that almost all of the forebears of today's paramyxoviruses have existed in bats," Drosten said in a press release.


The hendra and nipah viruses that have troubled Asia and Australia really came from Africa, scientists wrote in an April 24 article in the journal Nature Communications. "This results in an urgent need to conduct medical studies in Africa," Drosten said. In fact, many infections in Africa remain unexplained, and may well have been caused by some of the newly discovered viruses.

In addition to paramyxoviruses, bats may also be the origin of some of the most deadly emerging viruses, including SARS and Ebola. This, along with the fact that they can live in communities of millions and can range far and wide by flying, might lead to a knee-jerk desire to want to eradicate them in order to keep us safe.


Instead of demonizing bats, researchers vigorously argue that bats should be protected. They play critical ecological roles, such as eating insects and other pests. Moreover, culling bats is simply not practical, since they could just fly away from any systematic attempt to wipe them out.

The key to predicting and preventing future outbreaks may instead need to focus on human behavior. We should take care when encroaching on their natural habitats and not, say, cage or dine on them. SARS was potentially linked with animal markets. And research has shown that people living in Ebola-afflicted locales eat the bats that harbor the virus.