According to a new study published in the journal PLoS Pathogens, researchers have discovered a new flu virus in fruit bats from Peru. The new influenza A virus, named A/bat/Peru/10 (H18N11), follows a previous discovery of a novel influenza A virus (H17N10) circulating in fruit bats in Guatemala. This most recent finding was part of an investigation to learn whether other influenza viruses were present in bat species in Central and South America. The H18N11 virus was identified in the flat-faced fruit bat (Artibeus planirostris) in Northern Peru after testing samples from 114 bats.
This latest finding is significant in that it identifies another species that may act as a potentially important reservoir for influenza viruses. Influenza A is known to mainly infect birds, however it is also able to infect other animals such as pigs, horses, and humans. It is thought that influenza A viruses that infect mammals actually pose the greatest risk for spreading to humans and producing pandemics such as the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. While early research suggests that the new bat influenza viruses are not capable of replicating in humans, the potential public health significance is still unknown, and scientists cannot rule out the possibility that the novel viruses may undergo changes allowing them to eventually become capable of infecting humans. Bats are known reservoirs of other pathogens capable of infecting humans such as coronaviruses and rabies.
The Tong et al. study suggests that influenza viruses have actually been evolving in bats for quite some time, as “genetic diversity exceeds that observed in all other animal species combined.” The study also found evidence of established infection among several bat species and sustained transmission among the flat-faced fruit bat. Bats are a major source of emerging infectious diseases, and there is a need for further research to better understand the possibility of reassortment (the exchange of genetic material between two influenza viruses) allowing for infection in humans and to understand the severity of illness that could be associated with this new influenza virus. Additional studies are also needed to determine if influenza viruses are present in other types of bats.