Don’t panic! Animal-to-human transmission of herpes is very rare.
Researchers have accidentally discovered that a species of microbat in Texas is carrying a previously unknown type of herpes virus — and it can infect human cells.
Bats are known to carry several diseases that can sometimes affect humans if we come into contact with them. In fact, the 2014 Ebola outbreak started in Guinea and was the result of children playing near a hollow tree where many bats slept and spent their days.
The research team, led by Dr. Reed Shabman of the J. Craig Venter Institute and Professor Christopher Basler of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, accidentally found the virus while studying tumor cells taken from the wing of an adult female cave bat (Myotis velifer incautus).
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While using a technique called next-generation sequencing, the researchers soon noticed that a large number of the sequenced genes weren’t bat genes at all. Instead, they were genes related to herpes viruses.
After further investigation, they were able to identify that it was an entirely new virus — bat gammaherpesvirus 8 (BGHV8). In humans, gammaherpesviruses like Epstein-Barr virus, are known to cause diseases such as infectious mononucleosis and some cancers.
After assembling a genome of nearly 130,000 base pairs of genetic material for BGHV8, the team was able to show that the virus was capable of multiplying in the lab and infecting both human and animal cells.
“The cool thing about this study is that it was so surprising. We didn’t go looking for a virus and really, by accident, we found this new virus, and it turned out to be the first replicating bat gammaherpesvirus,” Basler, senior author on a paper published in the journal mSphere, told Sci-News. “We think it’s exciting for people interested in studying how bats interact with viruses.”
However, the discovery of a new herpes virus does not mean we need to panic. Animal-to-human transmission of other herpes strains is very rare and there’s no reason to think that BGHV8 could infect humans outside of lab conditions. Even if it could, the virus may not pose a threat to us — most herpes viruses are pretty harmless.
“A big question is why bats are repeatedly associated with infections that transfer to humans,” Basler said.
In fact, bats are known to carry over 66 different viruses. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 3 out of 5 new sickness are zoonoses — diseases that are transferred to a human from an animal — and bats have been linked to a few nasty ones including Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the Hendra virus, and rabies.
Now, we can’t go around killing all the bats on Earth because we are worried about diseases. Not only is it morally wrong, but they are also critical species in several terrestrial ecosystems. In fact, bats eat a lot of those pesky mosquitos no one likes, which also carry their own brand of viruses like Zika.
The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to just not get too close to bats. Admire (or fear) them from afar!