ICMR studying bats to ward off threat of zoonotic diseases

Bats are sources of high viral diversity and high-profile zoonotic viruses, including Nipah, which is expected to be the next big zoonotic disease

Based on traits of bats to carry the virus, researchers have pointed out that more bat species in India may be reservoirs of Nipah than the only one confirmed so far | Photo: iStock

Indian medical researchers are monitoring bat habitats in a bid to locate potential hotspots of zoonotic diseases.

The move by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) comes as the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, which is said to have originated from bats in Wuhan, China.

Bats are sources of high viral diversity and high-profile zoonotic viruses, including Nipah, which is expected to be the next big zoonotic disease.

India saw four outbreaks of Nipah virus between 2001 and 2019. The first was reported in Siliguri, West Bengal, in 2001 with a case fatality rate of 74 per cent.

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Subsequently, an outbreak was reported from Nadia district, West Bengal, in 2007 in which five people died. NiV was also reported in Kerala during 2018–19, followed by an outbreak last year.

ICMR–National Institute of Virology, Pune carried out a study to determine the presence of NiV in bat populations in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Puducherry and Odisha during January-November 2019.

These states are geographically close to the new hotspot of NiV. However, the study could not be continued for a longer duration due to COVID-19.

A total of 573 bats were collected, out of which 541 belonged to the Pteropus medius bat species while 32 were Rousettus leschenaultii bats.

“Around 51 bats (20 per cent) of the 255 Pteropus medius bats from Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry demonstrated presence of anti-Nipah IgG antibodies. However, the presence of virus couldn’t be detected in any of the throat and rectal swabs of Pteropus medius bats and Rousettus leschenaultii bats collected during January-November 2019,” said Dr Pragya Yadav, senior scientist at ICMR-NIV Pune, adding that they are soon going to resume the bat surveillance activity across the country.

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