NIH awards $2M to study flu viruses in bats

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A National Institutes of Health grant of just over $2 million is helping a Kansas State University veterinary researcher investigate ways of curtailing the influenza threat from bats, the university announced in a January press release.

"Influenza pandemics are typically caused by the emergence of novel influenza A viruses, which transmit efficiently within human populations that lack pre-existing immunity," said Dr. Wenjun Ma, associate professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at the university's College of Veterinary Medicine, said in the press release.

Dr. Ma said that genome sequencing has been used to discover new viruses in bats that are now named as bat influenza A–like viruses, or BIALVs.

"Concerns were raised that these novel BIALVs—HL17NL10 and HL18NL11—may pose significant spillover threats to humans," he said. "This is because antibodies to influenza A viruses and influenza B viruses have no cross-reactivity to novel BIALVs. To understand these novel viruses, reverse genetics have been established for both viruses."

Dr. Ma said bats have tested seropositive for influenza A viruses, frequently to the H9N2 viruses. Furthermore, cells from various species of bats have been demonstrated to support human, swine, and avian influenza A virus replication.

"Recent studies have shown that ...  BIALVs can infect canine and human cells," he explained. "All facts suggest a zoonotic potential of novel bat viruses. However, little is known about the receptors of these novel viruses, infection and immunological responses in their natural hosts—bats—or how they are maintained and transmitted among their natural hosts."

According to the university press release, Dr. Ma will try to address these important questions, and his project also will study whether bats can be infected by influenza A viruses, and if they are infected, what role in the ecology of influenza A virus these infections play.

"Significant knowledge is needed to understand these novel viruses and their potential as threats to other species, including humans," Dr. Ma said.

He hopes the results from his work will also provide new insight into the biology and virology of novel bat influenza A–like viruses, reveal the association of identified viral sequences with bats, and address concerns regarding their potential threats to other species, including humans.