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Bats are hosts to a range of viruses but don’t get sick – why?

Fruit bats. nutsiam/Shutterstock

Bats are hosts to a range of viruses but don’t get sick – why?

Fruit bats. nutsiam/Shutterstock

Bats are hosts to a range of viruses but don’t get sick – why?

Fruit bats. nutsiam/Shutterstock

Bats are hosts to a range of viruses but don’t get sick – why?

Fruit bats. nutsiam/Shutterstock

Coronaviruses, or “CoVs”, infect a variety of animals, with human infections ranging from HCoV-229E, which causes some cases of the common cold, to MERS-CoV, which is fatal in up to 30% of cases.

Fruit bats. nutsiam/Shutterstock

Keith Grehan, University of Leeds

Bats harbour many diverse viruses, including coronaviruses. Indeed, Sars, Mers and COVID-19 – which are all caused by coronaviruses – are thought to have emerged from bats. These diseases can be deadly to humans, yet bats seem to be unaffected by them.

Like all animal species, bats possess their own range of pathogens – viral, bacterial and fungal. Organisms are part of an interconnected system of other living things that evolved to exploit and be exploited in turn. Bats have therefore evolved with a set of viruses that infect them and continuously circulate through the bat population.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 is a member of a family of viruses called the coronaviridae (coronaviruses). Coronaviruses, or “CoVs”, infect a variety of animals, with human infections ranging from HCoV-229E, which causes some cases of the common cold, to MERS-CoV, which is fatal in up to 30% of cases.

Since the original SARS-CoV outbreak in 2002, coronaviruses closely related to SARS-CoV have been discovered in bats from countries all over the world. Scientists in China studying Chinese horseshoe bats in 2013, identified several SARS-like CoVs that use the same ACE2 receptor to bind to cells as the current SARS-CoV-2. These viruses were similar enough to SARS-CoV that they were termed SARS-like coronaviruses. New viruses have been added to this group since then. So there is a significant diversity of coronaviruses circulating in bats, which may increase the probability that one of these viruses has the potential to become a zoonotic infection – in other words, can jump to humans.

Bats are excellent hosts for viruses in general and coronaviruses as a group have been particularly successful at infecting and diversifying within bats. The highly social nature of many bat species leads to the constant exchange of viral pathogens between bats – and this may act to drive viral diversification within a population.

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