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Bat research could help prevent the next coronavirus, WSU professor says

The coronavirus has a likely connection to bats, and the next virus probably will, too, WSU professor Michael Letko says.

PULLMAN, Wash. — The novel coronavirus has a likely connection to bats, and scientists at Washington State University say the next viral outbreak probably will, too, unless they can learn enough about them and the thousands of viruses they carry.

Bats are likely behind more than just COVID-19. SARS, MERS, and some Ebola viruses are also likely linked to different bat species, according to a press release from WSU School of Global Animal Health. 

However, beyond those connections, there's a lot scientists don't know about bats and the viruses that seem to come from them, according to a recent article penned by WSU Global Animal Health Professor Michael Letko. 

“The more researchers have looked, the more we’ve found that a lot of these emerging pathogens, at one point or another, originated in bats,” said Letko, the lead author and an assistant professor of molecular virology. “Over time, we have accumulated a lot of information about some of the species of bats and some of the viruses they carry, but there are still these huge glaring holes in our knowledge.” 

That gap in knowledge has proven to be dangerous, as the coronavirus shows, Letko says. With humans encroaching further and further into bat territory, another bat-related viral infection is "almost inevitable," he said.

“We are coming into more contact with animal species around us in general, and then we find out these species are loaded with viruses,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunate, but it’s not surprising. We roll the dice for 20 years not doing anything to reduce contact with these animals. It was more or less a matter of time before something like this was going to happen.”  

Letko, and his co-authors on "Batborne virus diversity, spillover and emergence," say researching bats on a small molecular level and on a broader macro-level in the environment could decrease the chances of another pandemic. 

Letko and his co-authors say scientists need to learn more about how viruses are transmitted from bats to people, which could help develop medicine when viruses are found, or even better, prevent against "whole virus groups" before they become an issue. 

Letko has already been working on that as well. Before the pandemic began, he built a platform using synthetic coronavirus particles to test which were most likely to infect human cells.

When the pandemic began, Letko tested the coronavirus genome as soon as it was made available and identified the likely receptor on human cells, which became one of the first studies to provide functional laboratory data on the new virus. That information is necessary to help researchers find out which existing drugs could help treat coronavirus, and also to develop new medications. 

Research into bat ecology could also lead to solutions that are simple to implement, that may help limit virus transmission between bats and people, Letko said. 

“Sometimes, you don’t need vaccines or drugs. It’s just a behavioral change that helps mitigate and reduce the contact between people and the animals,” Letko said. “These are some of the kinds of interventions that we can take once we begin to understand what these viruses actually do.” 

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