A few years ago, disease ecologist David Hayman made the discovery of a lifetime.
He was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge. But he spent a lot of that time hiking through the rain forest of Ghana, catching hundreds of fruit bats.
“We would set large nets, up in the tree canopies,” he says. “And then early morning, when the bats are looking for fruit to feed on, we’d captured them.”
Hayman didn’t want to hurt the bats. He just wanted a few drops of their blood.
Bats carry a huge number of viruses in their blood. When Hayman took the blood samples back to the lab, he found a foreboding sign: a high level of antibodies against Ebola Zaire.
Right away, Hayman was concerned.
Ebola Zaire is the deadliest of the five Ebola species, and it has caused the most outbreaks. The antibodies in the bat’s blood meant the animals had once been infected with Ebola Zaire or something related to it.
Hayman knew West Africa was at risk for an Ebola outbreak. He and his colleagues even published the findings in the free journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, “so that anyone in the world could go and read them,” Hayman says. He thought health officials would also be worried. “We were all prepared for some sort of response, for questions,” Hayman says. “But I have to say, not many came. … Nothing happened.”
That was two years ago. Now, with more than 20,000 Ebola cases reported in West Africa, health officials are definitely listening to Hayman.
Scientists think bats likely triggered the entire Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Just as Hayman predicted. “It’s not a good way to proven right,” he says.
So now the big question is: Where else in the world is Ebola hiding out in bats? Where could the next big outbreak occur? (read more)