Many questions remain, weeks into the coronavirus outbreak. Given the early and close linkage of the outbreak to a Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China—which also sold animals such as birds and rabbits—the identification of the host of the virus and the route it took into humans has emerged as one of the biggest, earliest questions. Thanks to several Chinese research teams who performed genomic analysis on viruses isolated from patients, the puzzle pieces are coming together. The novel coronavirus, nCoV-2019, has been linked to bats.
During the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2003, scientists and epidemiologists were true detectives, working to uncover which animal acted as the natural reservoir for the virus. In their search, they tested multiple animals, including hog badgers, Chinese hares, beavers, cats, and civets. The first results linked SARS to civet cats—a conclusion that lasted for about a year, until it was overturned by the discovery that bats carry coronaviruses. Indeed, further genomic analysis revealed that horseshoe bats are the true reservoir of SARS.
Given that the groundwork had been laid, finding the reservoir of nCoV-2019, a virus closely related to SARS, was a far shorter road to travel. And, the finding is not surprising. Since bats were shown to be the carrier of SARS in 2003, not only have many severe acute respiratory syndrome related coronaviruses (SARSr-CoV) been isolated from bats, the mammals have been recognized as the natural reservoir for over 100 other viruses including MERS, Ebola virus, Marburg virus, Hendra virus, and Nipah virus, to name a few.
Why do bats harbor and spread so many viruses? There are a few reasons that may contribute to this unique characteristic. As reviewed in the article, “Going batty: Studying natural reservoirs to inform drug development”, Wudan Yan noted that bats’ high-density lifestyle sets up a perfect storm of viral transmission. Another contributing factor may be the tremendous diversity in and among the bat species, which accounts for roughly 20% of all mammals. Also, bats fly, traveling with their viruses to more areas than most mammals. In addition, flight creates an increased innate immune response and body temperature, two other factors that may create the ability to host viruses that would kill other hosts.
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