What bats keep: a new Chinese virus from the Ebola family will be key to learning how to fight them better

Eight. Until very recently, we were convinced that the Ebola virus had only seven relatives. That there were eight in total, come on: five ebolavirus (Zaire, Reston, Bundibugyo, Sudan and Tai Forest), two marburgviruses (Marburg and Ravn) and a cave virus, the Lloviu, found in an Asturian cave. Last summer we found the Bombali in Sierra Leone and now we just found a last one in China. We have reached ten.

Of the eight, the scientific community has only paid attention to three of them: Zaire, Sudan and Marburg. Above all, because they are the viruses that “pose a higher risk of transmission between species”. But as bat communities continue to evolve filoviruses in caves around the world, the question begins to be: when will the new epidemic appear? Will we be prepared

Mengla virus

As the journal Nature Microbiology publishes, a team of researchers from China and Singapore have found a new branch of the filovirus family in southern China's Měnglà County, almost on the border with Laos and Burma. As far as we know, Měnglà has not caused infectious outbreaks in people; however, it closely resembles those that can penetrate human cells.

The sequencing of the Měnglà genome has made it clear that, despite being a different genus from the filovirus family, it has the ability to bind to the same cellular receptors as its cousins ​​Ebola and Marburg. Furthermore, work on cell lines derived from humans, monkeys, mice, and dogs suggests that interspecies infection is possible. Lacking knowledge of its dangerousness, on paper, it is a bomb box.

Above all, because "this type of infectious disease can affect the general public without warning and with devastating consequences," explained lead author Wang Lin-Fa. It is not rhetoric. We discovered Lloviu because on the afternoon of June 17, 2002 more than five hundred bats appeared dead in a cave in Villaviciosa.

In the months before, thousands of bats had been dying in the north of the Peninsula and the south of France without anyone knowing. We are convinced that Lloviu was not transmitted to humans, but what would have happened if it had not been so? Could we have encountered an outbreak in the whole of south-west Europe? We don't know, but the possibility is on the table.

In this sense, studying the genetic diversity and geographical distribution of bat-borne filoviruses is key to correctly assess the risks and prevent possible outbreaks. As we have said many times, climate change and globalization have created an ideal breeding ground for viruses traditionally quartered in caves, jungles or mangroves to come to light. We are not sure if we are ready, but the discovery of the Měnglà gives us a bit of an advantage.

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