A team of UK scientists has isolated the Lloviu virus (LLOV), a close relative of the Ebola virus, from bats in Hungary for the first time.
LLOV belongs to the filovirus family, which also includes the Ebola virus. While Ebola (and other filoviruses such as the similarly pathogenic Marburg virus) have only been found in Africa, Lloviu has been found in Europe.
The filovirus LLOV was discovered in 2002 in Spain via its genetic material (RNA) in Schreiber’s bats. It was later discovered in bats in Hungary, according to the Medway School of Pharmacy team (a partnership between the universities of Kent and Greenwich).
Their findings, which were published in Nature Communications, emphasize the importance of future research to ensure pandemic preparedness.
“Our research is a smoking gun. It’s vital that we know both more about the distribution of this virus and that research is done in this area to assess the risks and to ensure we are prepared for potential epidemics and pandemics,” said Dr Simon Scott from the Viral Pseudotye Unit (VPU) at Medway.
The researchers also discovered that Lloviu has the ability to infect and replicate in human cells. This raises concerns about the possibility of widespread transmission in Europe and calls for immediate pathogenicity and antiviral research.
They also found no cross-reactivity between LLOV and Ebola antibodies, implying that existing Ebola vaccines may not protect against Lloviu if it is transmitted to humans.
Furthermore, the researchers demonstrated that a recombinant LLOV can infect known Ebola virus target cells, including human primary macrophages. However, the virus does not induce the inflammatory response in human macrophages, which is a hallmark of Ebola virus disease.
This suggests that, like the nonpathogenic Reston virus, LLOV may be able to infect humans, but the infection may not result in disease.
Because of our close relationship with animals in agriculture, as companions, and in the natural environment, LLOV is of interest to public health around the world as a zoonotic virus (one that spreads between animals and humans).
This is especially true in recent years, with the continued destruction and encroachment on many wild creatures’ natural habitats.
The World Health Organization states that “zoonoses comprise a large percentage of all newly identified infectious diseases, as well as many existing ones”.
According to Scott, the study clearly demonstrates that there is a significant knowledge gap regarding the pathogenicity, animal hosts, and transmissibility of these newly discovered viruses.
Only Ebola viruses have received the most attention among filoviruses, owing to multiple documented human outbreaks, particularly the West African Ebola virus (EBOV) disease outbreak from 2013 to 2016, as well as recent outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea.