Australian researchers have discovered a new bat virus they describe as a close relative to the hendra virus.
They say the new virus could help shed light on how Hendra and related Nipah viruses cause disease and death in animals and humans. Hendra is able to infect horses and, in seven known cases, people have caught the infection from horses. Four of them died as a result.
The new virus is named Cedar after the Queensland location where it was discovered.
Initial studies by scientists with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have discovered one surprising key difference – the Cedar virus does not cause illness in several animal species normally susceptible to Hendra and Nipah.
However, they say it is still too early to rule out the possibility that Cedar virus may cause illness and death in horses or other animals.
The new discovery had significant potential implications for protecting animals and humans from the Hendra and Nipah viruses. This tantalising difference may help scientists understand how to better manage and control its deadly cousins.
The findings have been announced today in the journal, PLoS Pathogens, published by the Public Library of Science.
Gary Crameri, a research scientist with the bat virus team at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria, said the new discovery had significant potential implications for protecting animals and humans from the Hendra and Nipah viruses.
“The significance of discovering a new henipavirus that doesn’t cause disease is that it may help us narrow down what it is about the genetic makeup of viruses like Hendra and Nipah that does cause disease and death,” Crameri said.
“The more that we can learn about bat-borne viruses, the better chance we have of developing anti-virals and vaccines to help protect human health, Australia’s livestock industry and our export trade from the threat of current and emerging animal diseases.
“Over 70 per cent of people and animals infected with Hendra and Nipah viruses die. This ranks henipaviruses amongst the deadliest viruses in existence, yet little is known about just how such viruses actually cause disease or death.”
The discovery was a result of a close partnership with Biosecurity Queensland which played an important role by collecting and screening samples from bat colonies across Queensland.
Dr Hume Field, of Biosecurity Queensland, said field work with bats was an essential part of research into identifying new viruses.
“Bats are being implicated as the natural host of a growing number of viruses in Australia and overseas, yet they appear to tolerate infection themselves, making bat research increasingly important.”
Bats have been identified as playing a role in the spread of viruses including Ebola, Marburg, SARS and Melaka, yet they are an essential part of a diverse ecosystem through their role as pollinators, seed dispersers and insect regulators.
The discovery is part of ongoing research by CSIRO to target diseases that threaten animals, people and the environment and is part of CSIRO’s wider biosecurity effort. It follows CSIRO’s development towards a horse vaccine against Hendra virus.