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Mission to discover virus threats in Gabon jungle

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STEEVE JORDAN/AFP or licensors -

Gabon

A colony of bats in the heart of a jungle in Gabon as six men in yellow biohazard suits embark on a mission to hunt for virus threats. They're hoping to unlock new knowledge on how pathogens like the coronavirus, leap the species barrier to infect humans.

The team take out sterile swabs and take samples from the bats' mouths and rectums.

These are then carefully stored for transport back to the lab, where they will be analyzed for any emerging pathogen.

Gaël Maganga is co-director of the Emerging Viral Diseases Unit at Franceville's Interdisciplinary Centre for Medical Research (CIRMF). It hosts one of Africa's two P4 laboratories -- ultra-high-risk labs that operate at top levels of security.

"We study bats in these caves because bats are suspected to be hosts for several pathogens, including the Ebola virus, so apart from monitoring the viruses responsible for viral fevers and hemorrhagic viruses, we also monitor other viruses in these animal populations", Maganga said.

In April, Gabon imposed a ban on the sale of bats and pangolins, another species deemed to be a potential vector of coronavirus.

"We know that there are diseases that pass from man to animal or from animal to man, which are called zoonoses. So we have to stop thinking that humans are on one side and animals are on the other. Today we know that what is going to happen in human health will impact animal health and vice-versa", Pauline Grentzinger, a Veterinarian in the Lekedi natural park said.

Every outbreak of Ebola in Gabon has occurred in the Zadie Caves area, which lies close to the border with the Republic of Congo.

CIRMF researchers have found samples of Ebola virus among bats, confirming that the flying mammals were the host.

Maganga has also uncovered a number of coronavirus strains circulating among bats, including some that are close to the Covid-19 strain that infects humans.

In October, a report issued by the UN's biodiversity panel IPBES said there were up to 850,000 viruses that exist in animals and may infect humans.

Seventy percent of emerging diseases circulate in animals before jumping to humans, and each year around five new diseases break out among humans, it said.

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