Hunting for Ebola among the bats of the Congo

Hunting for Ebola among the bats of the Congo


Two hours after midnight the scientists begin their day. Starting with full containment gear. Even though they are in a totally different environment then they are used to —a hot,muggy, buggy, night in a jungle tent — not a high-level containment facility in Montana– the dangers are the same. These researchers are catching bats in the Republic of Congo to answer the question: Where do Ebola outbreaks come from? in 2013, Ebola surfaced in Guinea and spread quickly to engulf neighboring countries Liberia and Sierra Leone. Much is known about Ebola. Scientists have characterized the virus’ proteins and sequenced its genome. They have collected blood samples and clinical data from hundreds of patients. We know some things about it’s path to people. But two important questions remain: Why does the virus emerge from the wild suddenly? And where does it lurk when it is not sickening and killing people? A huge 160 square-meter net is hung between trees to catch the largest bats in Africa– hammer-headed fruit bats, which can have a wingspan of up to 1m. A veterinarian carefully removes the bat from the net and puts it in a bag. One of the other men carries it a few hundred meters through the bush to the camp and ties it to a rope. Each bat is weighed, photographed, and measured. Then the sampling begins: the bats are swabbed, urine collected, and blood is drawn from a vein in the wing. Most Ebola outbreaks have happened in Central Africa. The first and most deadly type of Ebola was discovered after the outbreak in 1976, close to the Ebola river. More than half of all outbreaks with this virus have happened in DRC or Congo-Brazzaville. That is why this region seems a good place to search for the reservoir. Scientists have found evidence of Ebola infection in several bat species, but they have never isolated live virus from them. For release, the bats are hung on a line, this time without the bag and when they recover themselves fly into the night. The team consists of a virologist from the Rocky Mountain Lab in Montana and an epidemiologist and veterinarian from the Wildlife Conservation Society. The latter study the impact of Ebola on chimps and gorillas- –Ebola is the biggest threat to gorillas apart from poaching, Humans, in turn, often contract the virus by handling dead animals or eating bush meat. That’s why the program also involves telling locals not to touch dead animals in the forest but instead call the Wildlife Conservation Society. The samples will be shipped back to the lab in Montana for analysis alongside those from earlier trips. It could take months for them to arrive in the US. The hope is that the researchers will not only find live Ebola virus and finally prove that this bat species is the reservoir for this type. But also that the data over time will allow them to find patterns that help explain when and how Ebola is most likely to spillover from bats to other animals and ultimately humans. That could help researchers to stop Ebola at its source.

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