“We've had bird flu and swine flu - now scientists have found BAT FLU,” says the Daily Mail. The newspaper reports that the strain “could pose a risk to humans if it mingled with more common forms of flu”.
The Mail has got in a flap over the flying mammals based on new research that found type A flu virus in fruit bats captured in Guatemala in Central America. The discovery in bats is new as the virus is typically found in winged birds, and not winged mammals.
Researchers collected 316 bats of 16 different Latin American species. Types of flu virus were found in three bats of the little yellow-shouldered species, which is a fruit eating variety common across Central and South America. After analysing the genetic code of the bat flu virus the scientists concluded it contained segments that were significantly different from those found in known influenza A viruses. They also found that some aspects of the bat flu virus could work inside human lung cells grown in the lab. This led them to conclude that the virus has the potential to mix with human flu virus, which could, in rare circumstances, lead to the creation of a new flu strain that is capable of causing a flu pandemic, like bird flu or swine flu.
Despite this warning, scientists have not been able to grow the new bat virus in chicken eggs or human cells, which is possible with existing flu strains. This suggests that the immediate risk of infection to humans is small. Rather than highlighting a danger to human health, this study is likely to guide further research that may improve the understanding of potential pandemic flu threats to humans in the future.
March 8, 2012, 10:48 a.m.