INFLUENZA: Could bats be a brewing ground for new strains of the flu?

That what some researchers at Penn State University are trying to find out.

Humans knew that bats could carry diseases such as Ebola and rabies without showing symptoms — but it wasn’t until researchers found two new influenza viruses in fruit bats in South and Central America, then flu viruses in bats in Africa, that bats could carry influenza, the university reported.

The bats did not have symptoms of the flu.

"Although bats are elusive creatures, there is increasing interface between them and humans as a result of wildlife trade, bush-meat hunting, deforestation and urban development," said Suresh Kuchipudi, associate professor of virology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"It's important to determine if bats can allow infection of avian and human flu viruses, and if they could then serve as 'mixing vessels' and perhaps create the next pandemic flu virus. Up until now, no one has ever studied influenza virus receptors in bats."

Kuchipudi’s team looked at brown bats to see if they had “two specific receptors that are responsible for helping human and avian influenza viruses attach to cells” — they did — and “whether avian and human flu viruses can bind to bat tissues.”

Despite the findings, which indicate it could be possible for influenza to mutate in bats and create a new strain, it’s not panic time.

"While the sum of the evidence suggests that bats could play an important role in influenza epidemiology and zoonotic influenza emergence, we do not have sufficient scientific understanding needed to adequately predict which influenza strains may cause the next pandemic or what hosts they may come from," explained Kuchipudi.

More research is needed to understand any potential threat, he indicated.

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