The discovery is a big step forward in understanding where human cases of ebola come from
Scientists have found evidence of the deadly Ebola virus in a bat in Liberia, the virus was first detected in a bat in West Africa, researchers and officials said.
A team of scientists working with the Liberian government presented their findings in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. The discovery represents a major step forward in understanding where human cases of ebola come from, one of the biggest unanswered questions related to these outbreaks, said Jonathan Epstein, a scientist at the EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit organization that is part of the research team.
No human cases of Ebola are related to this finding, scientists say. Since the end of the 2014-2016 epidemic that has devastated West Africa, Liberia has not had new human cases, with more than 11,000 people dead in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Bats have long been suspected of being a natural reservoir or animal host for the Ebola, which means that the virus can live and grow inside the animals without harming them. But more than 40 years and more than two dozen outbreaks after the appearance of Ebola in Central Africa, the researchers still do not know what animal or animals it is carrying, much less how it spreads to humans.
"It was really hard to get conclusive evidence," Epstein said.
The results add to the evidence that bats can serve as a natural carrier of the wildlife of the Ebola, scientists say. The team found genetic material from the virus and antibodies in the blood of the bat showing the animal's immune response to infection.
But Epstein and others have warned that much more research is needed. Scientists have tested samples taken from 150 Mineopterus inflatus bats in northeastern Liberia. But only one of these bats proved to be positive, Epstein said.
If this type of bats, known as the "Long Long Fing", is a natural host of the virus, scientists expect to find more than one bat with antibodies against the virus, he said. It is also possible for the bat to get infected by another species of bats living in the same habitat, he said.
Bats Mineopterus inflatus live in caves, mines and forests and eat insects. They are small-sized, about 12-inch wide.
Other experts claim that much more research is needed to know whether this type of bats is a natural host.
The virus is naturally occurring in the West African ecology
"This is not useful information, but this is not entirely convincing about the condition of the reservoir," says Tom Kzyazek, a virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, which specializes in hemorrhagic viruses such as Ebola.
"This is a step in the right direction," said Hseyazek. "This suggests that the virus naturally occurs naturally in the West African ecology."
Most experts say that the natural host for the Ebola is a kind of fruit bat, not one that eats insects, he said. Earlier evidence of bats in the bats were in fruitful bats. Most noteworthy is that a small fruit bat, Rousettus aegyptiacus, is ultimately found to be the animal host of the Marburg virus, a close and equally fearsome cousin of Ebola.
Scientists write a scientific article about their discovery. The Liberian authorities, however, did not want to wait for publication, which could take a year before publishing the information, Epstein said. Officials want to use information to boost public health for Liberians to avoid bats to prevent potential infection. Bats can release the virus into saliva, urine and stools. Animals are also a common source of food; handling or feeding infected animals can also spread the virus.
The Ebola epidemic in West Africa began with an animal transmission to a two-year-old boy in a remote village in Guinea, according to the World Health Organization. Scientists still do not know exactly how the child has infected, but researchers say it is probably related to wildlife. Before he became ill, he was seen playing near a hollowed out bay, according to the WHO report of 2015 on the epidemic.
Scientists at the Columbia University School of Mailman, part of the team, are working to find out whether the virus found in bats is the same virus that caused the West African epidemic and the current epidemic in Congo, the biggest one ever recorded. According to data from the Congolese Ministry of Health, there are at least 713 cases and 439 deaths since Wednesday.