Dr's Casebook: How bat research could help in the fight against Covid-19

It is good to see that the Covid-19 vaccination programme is going so well.

Saturday, 9th October 2021, 4:45 pm
We need to understand how bats’ immune systems respond to the virus. Photo: Getty Images

We are now also giving boosters to health and social care workers and people at risk. And all this while scientific studies are going on to see how we can stymie the effect of further mutations.

It is not surprising that a lot of work is being done to answer key questions about Covid-19 and bats. A paper published in the journal Science Immunology reviews a number of the issues.

This review has been carried out by scientists in Australia and China. Specifically, we need to understand how bats’ immune systems respond to the virus.

That may allow scientists to determine how to modify current therapies for Covid-19 as well as developing drugs that could be effective against it and prevent Covid infections from developing into the severe illness that necessitates hospital admission.

Since it was first identified in December 2019, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has mutated several times.

The strains identified as Alpha, Beta and Delta are more infectious than the original. Indeed, we know that the Delta is up to 80 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha mutant.

The authors of this review acknowledge that the vaccination programme is vital, but it is important that we identify safe and effective treatments for people who contract Covid to prevent it becoming a serious disease.

It is not just about preventing hospitalisation, though.

Long Covid is proving to be widespread and extremely debilitating for many people, so we need a better understanding of how to treat it.

It is now known that the common ancestor of the Covid virus has been present in bats for between 40 and 70 years.

The intermediate host, thought to be the pangolin, but that is not certain now.

Bats contract the virus but exhibit minimal signs of disease. They do not get lung or major organ complications.

Their immune systems are doing something that we need to understand and find ways of duplicating.

The scientists suggest that bats resist the virus because they boost interferons, which then block inflammasomes, the complex proteins which are involved in triggering severe immune reactions. Because the bats’ immune system blocks these triggers, they do not get the cytokine storms that cause such serious illness. This is vital research.