The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic underscores the need for research networks like WAB-Net
From what we know, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19 disease) is a bat-origin virus, (although an unknown intermediate host, not a bat, could potentially have been involved in the spillover to people). The closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2 found in nature was from a Rhinolophus affinis bat in Southwest China. As with most emerging zoonotic diseases, the virus emerged in a large part due to human-driven factors — in this case, emergence is likely linked with the thriving wildlife trade and live animal markets. While we are only in the first few months of this outbreak, we have already seen the enormous global impact that an emerging coronavirus can have, in terms of mortality, morbidity, and economic impacts. At the same time we have seen in some cases that bats can become victims themselves – being blamed and persecuted for an outbreak that is the result of human behavior, not a fault of their own. These two points highlight the importance of establishing a bat research network committed not only to viral surveillance, but to bat conservation as well.
We also have witnessed the ability of this virus to spread from one country to the next, and have clearly seen how this virus, like all others, does not respect national borders. This highlights the importance of having a regional network in place – one that facilitates effective cross-country communication both in times of crisis, and times of tranquility (in which sharing of protocols and data is vital for regional biosafety).
The current outbreak has shown, now more than ever, the importance of the Western Asia Bat Research Network (WAB-Net) and its aims to:
- Characterize the diversity of bat coronaviruses (CoVs) in Western Asia
- Better understand the risk factors associated with CoV spillover
- Establish cross-discipline, cross-country partnerships, dedicated to improving biosecurity, biosafety, and bat conservation throughout the region
The more we understand about bat viral diversity in Western Asia, as well as the risk factors associated with viral spillover in the region, the better able we are to prevent, mitigate, and respond to devastating outbreaks like SARS-CoV-2.