Some of you may have heard rumours that SARS-CoV-2 arrived for us via bats. Now I know that a lot of people think it came from a research lab in Wuhan, but my guess is bats, and recent research into bats gives food for thought. They have a weird immune system, and they can tolerate all sorts of viruses. Accordingly, there are a number of research centres sprouting up around the world. Both China and the US have announced specific funding pots into research into bats and viruses. However, according to Nature (vol 615, pp576 – 580) one of the better advanced such studies is housed in Singapore. There, they captured 19 specimens of cave nectar bats and from them have bred a small colony that now has 140 members. Apparently this is quite an achievement because in general bats are very difficult to breed in captivity. The bats enjoy freshly chopped melon, papaya and mango, powdered milk, and, er, nectar. Which I suppose they would, given their name. There are apparently 1,450 species of bat in the world, but very few have been bred. So far, the successes include these cave nectar bats, Jamaican fruit bats, Egyptian fruit bats, and “big brown bats”. Nobody so far has managed to breed a horseshoe bat. (How did it get that name?) Why is this important? Because horseshoe bats are known to host an exceptional diversity of coronaviruses.
Subsequent research into bats is difficult. Actually catching them is difficult and there are safety challenges, given that such bats may well give you a disease you do not want. Then, once you have bats, it appears bat cells are extremely difficult to propagate. All the genetic toolkits used for mice and human cells are not available. There are very few monoclonal antibodies that are used to tag immune cells. For a long time there was no high-quality genome, which means researchers still do not have a clear picture of the basic architecture of the bat immune system.
It is not just coronaviruses that are of interest. Some species also host viruses as deadly as rabies, Ebola and Marburg. (Collecting such bats would be problematical.) The question then is, how come bats can host the viruses without showing signs of infection? It seems that one of their attributes is they maintain high levels of interferons, which raise the alarm and set off the means of quashing viral replication. They also have proteins that interfere with viral replication and prevent viruses from leaving cells if they get in. Their cells are equipped with an efficient system of disposing of damaged cell components. Finally, when pathogens do intrude, they do not overreact with an outsized inflammatory response, which is often more dangerous to humans than the actual damage done by the virus. However, this has another effect. Instead of expending all the effort to get rid of all the virus, the bat tolerates a low level and creates an adaptive response that clicks into action if it encounters further pathogen.
Thus a couple of horseshoe bats were captured in a cave in Spain, and from the body parts (after bats died) pluripotent stem cells were obtained and sequenced RNA expressed from these and found an abundance of sections that were essentially viral fragments, many being from coronaviruses. The bat cells appeared to suck up viral information “like a sponge”. It is not clear what this means but it would seem to indicate that the bat is continuously polishing up its immune system, generating and maintaining the equivalent of a low level of multiple vaccines all the time. Thus, from the viral point of view, bats are the ideal propagating medium. Once infected, they can spread the infection for an indefinite time.
Where this will go is anyone’s guess. Apparently in the US a start-up has raised $100 million in venture capital funding, so some think there is a future in bats. On the other hand, a bat that can carry around Marburg without showing adverse signs is not a species I would want to get too close to.