Ghana’s batmen hunting for pandemic clues

Bats are essential to the world’s ecosystems, but they are known carriers of several viruses. Humans are increasingly encroaching upon their habitats, adding to the risk of new pandemics, so scientists are studying bats for any clues about how to prevent any new outbreaks.

Dusk is the witching hour at Accra Zoo. It is the time that the captive colony of straw-coloured fruit bats begin to stir and the best time they can be tested for different pathogens.

A team of scientists from the University of Ghana’s veterinary school is here to analyse the bat droppings, or guano.

They are involved in an international effort to predict the next pandemic and even in the extreme heat of Ghana’s rainy season, they dress up in full PPE. They enter the enclosure and spread a white tarpaulin out on the ground.

Lead scientist Dr Richard Suu-ire has studied bats for many years. He explains that PPE is needed “to protect you from any infection you may pick up within the cage but also to protect the bats from getting anything from us. So it’s protection both ways.”

Much remains a mystery about these animals – the only mammals that fly – and their extraordinary immune systems. Somehow bats can carry many viruses but don’t seem to get sick themselves.

Ghana has joined countries like Bangladesh and Australia as part of a global project called Bat OneHealth, which investigates how pathogens are transmitted from one species to another and what can be done to prevent so-called spillover events.

In light of the Covid pandemic, the bat-borne viruses being focused on in this research include coronaviruses.

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