Researchers working in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo have identified three species of fruit bats as the long-sought animal reservoir...

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Researchers working in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo have identified three species of fruit bats as the long-sought animal reservoir of one of the deadliest known human pathogens, the Ebola virus.

The team tested more than 1,000 bats and other animals before tracking the virus to fruit bats, which are commonly eaten by people in Central Africa, according to a report in today’s issue of the journal Nature.

Researchers found minute genetic traces of the virus in 22.6 percent of the bats tested. More important, they found that the virus produces no symptoms in infected bats, thus allowing the virus spread without disabling its carrier, said lead researcher Eric Leroy, an immunologist with the International Center for Medical Research in Gabon.

Dr. Sanford Kuvin, head of tropical infectious diseases at Israel’s Hebrew University, said the study provides strong evidence of Ebola’s presence in bats and should prompt people in the region to “avoid contact with the creatures at all costs.”

Ebola hemorrhagic fever first emerged in 1976, erupting simultaneously in 55 villages near the Ebola River in Zaire, killing nine of every 10 people it infected.