Watching for the next coronavirus | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Watching for the next coronavirus

Scientists explore why bats carry the viruses believed to cause pandemics

Health officials inspect bats at a live market in Solo, Indonesia. Associated Press (file)

Watching for the next coronavirus

Scientists believe that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 originated in bats, just like the other coronaviruses that cause Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). But no one knew how bats can carry these diseases without becoming sick.

Now researchers believe they have found the answer. In a study published on April 29 in Scientific Reports, scientists found the MERS coronavirus and its host bat adapt to each other, allowing both to survive. The researchers hope their discovery will enable scientists to predict when a bat virus may cause an outbreak.

Researchers have long known that bats can carry coronaviruses without getting sick. In this study, they succeeded in identifying the complex biological processes by which both bat and virus adapt and coexist. The bat’s body doesn’t produce inflammation or other symptoms of illness, and the virus mutates to adapt to the bat.

“Instead of killing bat cells as the virus does with human cells, the MERS coronavirus enters a long-term relationship with the host, maintained by the bat’s unique ‘super’ immune system,” researcher Vikram Misra said. “SARS-CoV-2 is thought to operate in the same way.”

But that super immune system can fail under stressors such as other diseases, confinement (like in a wet market), or loss of habitat.

“When a bat experiences stress to their immune system, it disrupts this immune system–virus balance and allows the virus to multiply,” Misra said. “This information may be critical for predicting the next bat virus that will cause a pandemic.”

Jon Epstein, a disease ecologist and virus tracker, believes another factor protects bats from the coronaviruses they carry. Bats beat their wings hundreds of times a minute when they fly.

“The inflammation that results from the physical act of beating your wings hundreds of times a minute can lead to damage at the cellular level,” Epstein told Business Insider, adding that to prevent such constant inflammation, the bat lowers its immune system response. Because they spend so much time flying, that dampened response is always turned on, protecting them from becoming ill from an invading virus. Although the lowered response can prevent the virus from causing illness, it is too weak to destroy the pathogen, making the bat a kind of viral incubator.

The SpaceX crew arrives at the International Space Station on Sunday.

The SpaceX crew arrives at the International Space Station on Sunday. Associated Press/NASA

Next stop, the moon

American astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley’s flight to the International Space Station over the weekend completed the second and final test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. Now the spacecraft can get NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certification for long-duration missions to the space station. Its success highlights the large role commercial businesses likely will play in future missions.

Although the Crew Dragon is more technologically advanced, with touch-screen control panels instead of buttons and switches, it recalls the capsule missions to space in the 1960s and ’70s. Apollo astronauts jettisoned the rockets that propelled their capsules into the ocean or outer space, and reentry and splashdown often damaged the capsules themselves. NASA switched all of its manned flights to space shuttles in the early 1980s because they could land on a runway and be used again. But the shuttle program retired in 2011 for budgetary reasons, and the United States began paying Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the space station. The trip can cost up to $90 million per astronaut, National Geographic reported.

Saturday’s launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was the first time astronauts have blasted off from the United States since 2011. It was also the first private, commercially built manned space launch. The spacecraft’s Falcon 9 rocket landed safely on a barge in the ocean after detaching from the Crew Dragon. SpaceX plans not to reuse Crew Dragon capsules yet for the safety of the astronauts, but it already reuses the Cargo Dragon, the unmanned version that takes supplies and other payload into space.

The launch of the Crew Dragon has paved the way for future human exploration to the moon and Mars, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, ushering in “a new era in human spaceflight … as we once again launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”

Behnken and Hurley plan to stay on the space station for one to two months before taking the Crew Dragon back to Earth and splashing down off the coast of Florida. J.B.

The SpaceX crew arrives at the International Space Station on Sunday.

The SpaceX crew arrives at the International Space Station on Sunday. Associated Press/NASA

Beware pandemic misinformation

Bots designed to spread misinformation account for nearly half of tweets discussing COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, according to a recent study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University.

Since January, researchers have collected more than 200 million posts on Twitter discussing the pandemic. Their analysis showed bots, or automated computer programs, were behind 82 percent of the most influential retweeters and 62 percent of the top 1,000. The high percentages reflect a troubling increase in bot misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re seeing up to two times as much bot activity as we’d predicted based on previous natural disasters, crises, and elections,” said Kathleen Carley, director of the Center for Informed Democracy & Social Cybersecurity, adding various countries and interest groups use the crisis to push political agendas.

To identify bots, the researchers looked for things like posts sent out more frequently than humanly possible, an account that seems to post from different countries within hours, or tweets that appear copied and pasted.

Some of the tweets referenced conspiracy theories such as mannequins filling hospital beds or a link between the virus and 5G cellular towers.

“People have real concerns about health and the economy, and people are preying on that to create divides,” Carley said.

So far, experts have not developed a way to counter bot campaigns, but people can protect themselves by closely examining accounts and using only trusted sources for information. —J.B.

The SpaceX crew arrives at the International Space Station on Sunday.

The SpaceX crew arrives at the International Space Station on Sunday. Associated Press/NASA

COVID-19 monkey business

A monkey attacked a lab technician in India and stole blood samples from three COVID-19 patients before escaping to a nearby tree. The technician videoed the monkey sitting in the tree and trying to eat some surgical gloves, Indian news outlet NDTV reported.

Local residents worried other monkeys would contract the virus and pass it to humans. But the stolen items were regular blood samples, not throat swabs, and no evidence shows animals can catch the coronavirus through contact with human blood, hospital spokesperson Dr. S.K. Garg said.

Evidence does exist that humans can infect animals. In April, five tigers and three lions at New York’s Bronx Zoo apparently caught the disease from a staff member, and two pet cats and a dog have tested positive for COVID-19, presumably passed from humans, Live Science reported. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

Beginnings alone is worth the price of a WORLD subscription. —Ike

Sign up to receive Beginnings, WORLD’s free weekly email newsletter on science and intelligent design.

Please wait while we load the latest comments...