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Infectious Diseases

Updated 24 June 2020

Bats are immune to coronaviruses, so scientists are looking at what we can learn from them

Why is it that bats can harbour several harmful viruses, but remain unaffected, unlike humans?

  • Bats have a special relationship with viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2
  • In a new study, scientists are trying to determine why, when contracting the virus, bats don't fall ill
  • The team will study the animal's nasal passages in particular


The Ebola virus, Nipah virus, and coronaviruses such as SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, are some of the many viruses for which bats can be a natural host. While these viruses can cause severe harm in humans, scientists are trying to understand why bats don’t get sick.

Scientists from Stony Brook University in New York are therefore currently embarking on a new study that will investigate just how these kinds of viruses affect the cells of bats upon entry, but unlike previous studies that looked at the bat’s immune system, this study will specifically focus on their nasal passages, explained a news release by the University.

Why the nasal passages?

Study leader  Liliana Dávalos, PhD, from the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University, explained that similar studies focused on symptomatic disease and the bat’s immune system, but that focusing on the animal’s goblet cells may provide more insight.

Goblet cells are responsible for secreting mucus in the nasal passages, and the researchers hypothesise that coronaviruses may be attacking these cells differently in bats and humans.

"There is much to learn about the cells viruses attack upon entry," Dávalos said. "Because of the acute respiratory symptoms and the curious loss of the sense of smell in some human patients with Covid-19, there is a hint that cells in the nasal passage are afflicted first.

"We suspect that the receptors coronaviruses use to enter cells are distributed differently in the bats that have, for many generations, faced the challenge of circulating coronaviruses."

How the study will be done

The team will carry out the study in the hopes of understanding how the nasal lining (or epithelium), is structured in bats compared to humans. To do this, they will compare three things: proteins, DNA and histology (the structure of tissues) of bats to humans and mice.

As a result, this will yield more insight into the role of goblet cells which possess immune and inflammatory functions. These functions are critical for infection from viral attack, and resistance to viral attack. Published data sets from nasal tissue samples of human and mice, as well as bat tissue samples from the Dávalos lab, will be used during the study phase.

The researchers hope that their findings might assist health agencies globally to better survey bat populations, considering they are geographically widespread, which could ultimately prevent any future pandemics such as Covid-19.

Other reports of bats and infectious diseases  

Back in 2018, Health24 reported on a team of researchers at Montana State University who investigated vampire bats for two years, and found that Bartonella infection – bacteria that can cause several diseases in humans via bites and scratches – was common among them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that infections by this disease mainly happen after scratches from domestic or feral cats, especially kittens.