Bird flu, pig flu, now bat flu? Human risk unclear

By MIKE STOBBE , AP Medical Writer
In this undated photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a Sturnira lilium, the host species of bat that the influenza virus has recently been detected in, is shown in Guatemala. The surprising discovery of genetic fragments of a flu virus is the first well-documented report of it in the winged mammals Scientists suspect some bats caught flu centuries ago and the virus mutated within the bat population into this new variety. (AP Photo/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Amy Gilbert)

(AP) -- For the first time, scientists have found evidence of flu in bats, reporting a never-before-seen virus whose risk to humans is unclear.

The surprising discovery of genetic fragments of a is the first well-documented report of it in the winged mammals. So far, scientists haven't been able to grow it, and it's not clear if - or how well - it spreads.

bugs are common in humans, birds and pigs and have even been seen in dogs, horses, seals and whales, among others. About five years ago, Russian virologists claimed finding flu in bats, but they never offered evidence.

"Most people are fairly convinced we had already discovered flu in all the possible" animals, said Ruben Donis, a scientist who co-authored the new study.

Scientists suspect that some bats caught flu centuries ago and that the virus mutated within the into this new variety. Scientists haven't even been able to grow the new virus in or in human cell culture, as they do with more conventional .

But it still could pose a threat to humans. For example, if it mingled with more common forms of influenza, it could swap genes and mutate into something more dangerous, a scenario at the heart of the global movie "Contagion."

The research was posted online Monday in the journal .

The CDC has an international outpost in Guatemala, and that's where researchers collected more than 300 bats in 2009 and 2010. The research was mainly focused on rabies, but the scientists also checked specimens for other germs and stumbled upon the . It was in the intestines of little yellow-shouldered bats, said Donis, a veterinarian by training.

These bats eat fruit and insects but don't bite people. Yet it's possible they could leave the virus on produce and a human could get infected by taking a bite.

It's conceivable some people were infected with the virus in the past. Now that scientists know what it looks like, they are looking for it in other bats as well as humans and other animals, said Donis, who heads the Molecular Virology and Vaccines Branch in the CDC's flu division.

At least one expert said CDC researchers need to do more to establish they've actually found a flu virus.

Technically, what the CDC officials found was genetic material of a flu virus. They used a lab technique to find genes for the virus and amplify it.

All they found was a segment of genetic material, said Richard "Mick" Fulton, a bird disease researcher at Michigan State University.

What they should do is draw blood from more bats, try to infect other bats and take other steps to establish that the virus is spreading among the animals, he continued. "In my mind, if you can't grow the virus, how do you know that the virus is there?"

Donis said work is going on to try to infect healthy bats, but noted there are other viruses that were discovered by genetic sequencing but are hard to grow in a lab, including hepatitis C.

More information: “A distinct lineage of influenza A virus from bats,” by Suxiang Tong, et al. http://www.pnas.org

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Lurker2358
not rated yet Feb 27, 2012
Unfortunately, novel strains of the flu would not be properly diagnosed in many cases through conventional medicine, that is, until the dead corpse is lying at someone's feet.

Unlike on "House," in real hospitals and clinics, people are only tested for exotic diseases after like the 15th visit to every major specialist and nothing else can be used to explain it.

Although universities and R&D firms seem to find the time and money to run every test imaginable on every creature, the Hospitals and clinics don't seem to run anything beyond a CBC and metabolic panel without an act of congress.

If you're ever one of the first several hundred to several thousand to catch an exotic flu strain, chances are pretty good you'll die, just like those poor people in Mexico, because no hospital or clinic is going to run any sufficiently advanced or discriminating tests on you until someone notices an exceptionally high mortality rate; unfortunately, it's too late by then...