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Study on bats and bat hunters in Nagaland to be probed

Bats carry more than 100 different viruses, including Ebola, rabies and SARS, without becoming sick themselves. | Photo Credit: The Hindu
Bindu Shajan Perappadan NEW DELHI 03 February 2020 01:01 IST
Updated: 06 February 2020 11:49 IST

It was carried out by researchers from U.S. and China

The government has ordered an inquiry into a study conducted in Nagaland by researchers from the U.S., China and India on bats and humans carrying antibodies to deadly viruses like Ebola, officials confirmed to The Hindu.

The inquiry comes as officials worldwide grapple with the spread of novel coronavirus 2019, from Wuhan, China, to 20 countries, that has resulted in over 300 deaths.

The study came under the scanner as two of the 12 researchers belonged to the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Department of Emerging Infectious Diseases, and it was funded by the United States Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). They would have required special permissions as foreign entities.

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Watch | Bats and the novel coronavirus

The study, conducted by scientists of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in the U.S. and the Duke-National University in Singapore, is now being investigated for how the scientists were allowed to access live samples of bats and bat hunters (humans) without due permissions. The results of the study were published in October last in the PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases journal, originally established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The NCBS authorities were not available for immediate response.

“The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) sent a five-member committee to investigate. The inquiry is complete, and a report has been submitted to the Health Ministry,” a senior government official told The Hindu.

 

The U.S. Embassy and the Union Health Ministry declined to comment on the inquiry. In a written reply to questions from The Hindu, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta said it “did not commission this study and had not received any enquiries [from the Indian government] on it.” An American official, however, suggested that the U.S. Department of Defense might not have coordinated the study through the CDC.

The study, ‘Filovirus-reactive antibodies in humans and bats in Northeast India imply Zoonotic spillover’, published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases states the researchers found “the presence of filovirus (e.g. ebolavirus, marburgvirus and dianlovirus) reactive antibodies in both human (e.g. bat hunters) and bat populations in Northeast India, a region with no historical record of Ebola virus disease.”

Bats often carry ebola, rabies, marburg and the SARS coronavirus. Many high-profile epidemics have been traced to bats, and scientists are discovering new bat-borne viruses all the time. Ebola and Marburg viruses are known to cause severe hemorrhagic fevers, which affect many organs and damage the blood vessels, killing more than 50 percent of the people they infect, according to the World Health Organization.

Watch | What is Coronavirus?
 

It adds: “Ebola has posed a global health threat several times, most notably from 2013 to 2016. It is a deadly disease, with a fatality rate of roughly 50 percent.” Now, according to health officials, 2019-nCoV, too, has acquired the ability to pass between people and can do so before symptoms appear.

Also read: How bats harbour several viruses yet not get sick

The Nagaland study suggests bats in South Asia act as a reservoir host of a diverse range of filoviruses, and filovirus spillover occurs through human exposure to these bats. For the study done in 2017, 85 individuals participating in an annual bat harvest at Mimi, Nagaland, were picked. The majority of bat hunters were male, aged between 18 and 50, and participated at least eleven times in the harvest. The study says the potential virus present in the bats may not be an exact copy of the virus responsible for various outbreaks.

Given the widespread challenges from the newly discovered viruses, officials say they want to take no chance on their spread and will take action to ensure all medical studies in the country adhere to strict norms.

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An earlier version of the headline for this article had mentioned coronavirus which is not directly linked to the story and also focused on Wuhan Institute, which is only one of the participants in the story. The headline has been suitably revised.

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