A University of Saskatchewan (USask) research team has uncovered how bats can carry the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus without getting sick--research that could shed light on how coronaviruses make the jump to humans and other animals. Coronaviruses such as MERS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and more recently the COVID19-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus, are thought to have originated in bats. While these viruses can cause serious, and often fatal, disease in people, for reasons not previously well understood, bats seem unharmed. "The bats don't get rid of the virus and yet don't get sick. We wanted to understand why the MERS virus doesn't shut down the bat immune responses as it does in humans," said USask microbiologist Vikram Misra, PhD. In research just published in Scientific Reports, the team has demonstrated, for the first time, that cells from an insect-eating brown bat can be persistently infected with MERS coronavirus for months, due to important adaptations from both the bat and the virus working together. The open-access article is titled “Selection of Viral Variants During Persistent Infection of Insectivorous Bat Cells with Middle east Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus.” "Instead of killing bat cells as the virus does with human cells, the MERS coronavirus enters a long-term relationship with the host, maintained by the bat's unique 'super' immune system," said Dr. Misra, corresponding author on the paper. "SARS-CoV-2 is thought to operate in the same way." Dr. Misra says the team's work suggests that stresses on bats--such as wet markets, other diseases, and possibly habitat loss--may have a role in coronavirus spilling over to other species.
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