New SARS-Like Virus Discovered in Myanmar Bats

Bats are integral to the world’s ecosystems and produce innumerable benefits to human health, but they can also harbor deadly diseases. Now, scientists have discovered a never-before-seen virus in one specaies of bat, and hope to combat it before it reaches humans.

Smithsonian announced Wednesday that scientists working for the PREDICT program made the troubling discovery. PREDICT is part of USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development, and aims to identify diseases in animals that are at a high risk of spreading to humans. Veterinarians, scientists and global health experts from a variety of world health organizations joined together in the initiative to try to stop pandemics before they start.

Bats Several species of bats, including the wrinkle-lipped bat, perch on a cave wall. Bats are integral to the world’s ecosystems and produce innumerable benefits to human health, but they can also harbor deadly diseases. STR OLD/REUTERS

In their research, the team found a never-before-known virus in the wrinkle-lipped bat from Myanmar, Smithsonian reported. The virus is in the same family as the devastating SARS and MERS viruses.

Most diseases that nonhuman animals get cannot infect humans, but many can mutate and jump to our species. In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, 70 percent of new diseases that have harmed humans in recent decades have come from animals, although estimates vary. Bird flu, swine flu and mad cow disease are all salient examples of concerning animal diseases. While it’s controversial, there is also evidence that a deadly brain disease in deer could potentially spread to humans.

Bats can also harbor and spread diseases like rabies, Ebola and flu. To minimize the risk of disease in those species, and other animal species is to minimize human risk as well. However, bats perform important ecological and economic roles. They serve as free pest control, eating up disease-carrying insects, and they pollinate plants and fruits that humans eat. Scientists estimate that, in the U.S. alone, bats contribute more than $3.7 billion per year in value to the agricultural industry. 

Additionally, bats aren't the only culprit. PREDICT has already discovered more than 800 new diseases in populations of wildlife, livestock and humans.

In addition to identifying the virus, the team will be taking note of migration patterns of the wrinkle-lipped bat using GPS, Smithsonian reported. Where the bats go next could be an important place to study to determine what kind of risk the virus may pose.

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