Program Sponsored by: Ecohealth Alliance

Bats & Coronaviruses Project

Photo by Andrew Spalton

Bats are natural reservoir hosts to several emerging viruses with pandemic potential, including Marburg, Nipah, and SARS and MERS-coronaviruses, but current research on the diversity and distribution of bats and associated viruses, and potential for zoonotic disease emergence in Western Asia is severely limited. To fill this gap, we are currently conducting a hypothesis-driven One Health research project focused on characterizing bat diversity, bat coronavirus diversity and the risk of bat-borne zoonotic disease emergence in the region.

Our primary objective is to characterize the diversity of coronaviruses (CoVs) and test key hypotheses about bat-borne zoonotic virus emergence risk in Western Asia in order to reduce the threat of infectious diseases. Despite growing recognition that bats are important zoonotic disease hosts, and the emergence of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), there remains limited scientific knowledge of the distribution and ecology of bats, their pathogen diversity, and potential interfaces for transmission to humans and other species in Western Asia – an area encompassing over 20 countries in the Middle East and Near East. Our project is designed to detect emerging viruses at their source (wildlife populations) through hypothesis-driven research, and to provide a mechanism for improved risk assessment, information sharing and scientific collaboration in an area with fragmented, and often limited, capacity for zoonotic disease investigations. Through the Western Asia Bat Research Network (WAB-Net), we have established partnerships with regional laboratories and field researchers, and are working to establish a statistically rigorous research platform to characterize endemic pathogen diversity for coronaviruses – a key viral family with known pandemic potential. Data on pathogen diversity, host distribution, and ecological traits will be curated, exchanged, and used to model zoonotic disease risk in this politically volatile region.

This project includes extensive non-lethal field sampling of bats, screening and characterization of coronaviruses from these samples with our partner laboratories currently operating within the region, and modeling emerging disease risk by combining viral data with host, geographic, and ecological data. Research activities of the project are strengthened via laboratory exchanges and annual data sharing and capacity building workshops, which are populated by members of WAB-Net.