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OneBAT investigates virus transmission in bats to prevent potential pandemics

The European project “OneBAT: One Health approach to understand, predict and prevent viral emergencies from bats” wants to protect public health by studying viruses in European bats and their possible transmission to humans, to prevent potential future pandemics.

After the Covid-19 pandemic, concern that new diseases could jump from animals to humans (zoonoses) has increased. Ecological alterations such as the destruction of natural habitats, the loss of biodiversity and exposure to certain chemicals could increase the likelihood of exposure of bat viruses to humans, which is why the project has a "Onehealth" approach: One world, one health " which aligns with global efforts to be prepared for health emergencies.

The project coordinated by the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie, brings together thirteen European partners and one from the United States, including academic institutions, research laboratories and government organizations. OneBAT began in December 2023 with a duration of 3 years and is funded by the European Union through the Horizon Europe program.

The University of Barcelona is part of the consortium with the participation of Dr. Jordi Serra Cobo from the Biodiversity Research Institute of the University of Barcelona, who is one of the key researchers bringing together knowledge of the ecology of bats and their ability to be a virus reservoir. Dr. Silvia Bofill, from the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona, is in charge of developing a new technique for detecting viruses in cave aerosols.

European bats as virus reservoirs

Bats are a very particular species from evolutionary, ecological, biological and immunological points of view, playing a key role in the evolution and transmission of certain viruses. In Europe, bats are known to carry different types of high-impact viruses, such as Lyssavirus, Filovirus and Coronavirus. However, knowledge about the risk of transmission of these viruses to humans or other species and about possible mitigation tools (vaccines) is limited. OneBAT seeks to address this lack of knowledge, focusing on a single species of declining European bat, Miniopterus schreibersii, and the three genera of viruses it carries.

Dr. Serra Cobo explains that “this research explores three groups of emerging viruses about which we have little information, especially regarding certain lyssaviruses and filoviruses. They are viruses that can be highly pathogenic and, therefore, it is necessary to study them to adopt preventive measures. At the same time, the project has a crucial ecological component to understand the situation of Miniopterus schreibersii populations in Europe and propose conservation measures."

Improving pandemic prevention

The project also seeks to increase the European Union's response capacity to cross-border threats and promote better protocols and technologies in the fields of virology and veterinary medicine. The knowledge acquired will be essential to improve the availability of current and future tools against infections that can be caused by the viruses studied. On the other hand, the project will provide abundant information on the ecology of Miniopterus schreibersii, data of utmost importance for the protection and conservation of populations of this species.

OneBAT's work will be essential to better understand the complex interactions between bats, pathogenic microorganisms and the environment; "to evaluate the epidemiological risk and propose prevention measures, it is essential to analyse the dynamics of the host populations." argues Dr. Sierra Cobo. This study will be decisive in developing therapeutic and prophylactic tools to prevent future pandemics. It will also contribute to creating a methodological platform that facilitates the development of tools applicable to other bat species or viruses.

More information on the project website: https://onebat.eu/ 

Interview with Jordi Serra: http://www.ub.edu/irbio/biodiversidad-la-ultima-frontera-n-889-ca