Discovery of a new Ebola-like virus in Europe

By Siouxsie Wiles 28/10/2011

Researchers from Spain and the USA have reported finding an Ebola-like Filovirus in dead bats in Spain. For those who don’t know anything about Ebola, it a highly contagious virus which causes haemorrhagic fever (described in Richard Preston’s fantastic book The Hot Zone as something like bleeding from every orifice). It probably comes as no surprise that infection with Ebola tends to be fatal. Filoviruses are endemic in Africa and bats have long been implicated as reservoirs and vectors for transmission as they remain asymptomatic while shedding virus in their faeces.

In 2002, Schreiber’s bats (Miniopterus schreibersii) in Cueva del Lloviu, Asturias, Spain, sustained massive die-offs that destroyed several colonies in less than 10 days. Negredo and colleagues analysed bat carcasses and found a novel Filovirus with 73% identity to Ebola. The virus, which they named Lloviu, was not found in any healthy bats so does seem to be associated with disease rather than asymptomatic carriage.

This finding raises some really interesting questions. Where did Lloviu come from? It would seem that Lloviu doesn’t share the known ecological or geographical niches of other filoviruses. And perhaps more importantly, where is Lloviu hiding now and what might this mean for the future fate of bat populations? Bats play critical ecological roles in insect control, plant pollination, and seed dissemination. Sadly, North American bat populations are already in decline due to a nasty and lethal fungal skin infection known as white nose syndrome. Let’s hope Llovia or something like it doesn’t finish them off.

Negredo A, Palacios G, Vázquez-Morón S, González F, Dopazo H, et al. (2011) Discovery of an Ebolavirus-Like Filovirus in Europe. PLoS Pathog 7(10): e1002304. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1002304