Isolation of Angola-like Marburg virus from Egyptian rousette bats from West Africa

Marburg virus (MARV) causes sporadic outbreaks of severe Marburg virus disease (MVD). Most MVD outbreaks originated in East Africa and field studies in East Africa, South Africa, Zambia, and Gabon identified the Egyptian rousette bat (ERB; Rousettus aegyptiacus) as a natural reservoir. However, the largest recorded MVD outbreak with the highest case–fatality ratio happened in 2005 in Angola, where direct spillover from bats was not shown. Here, collaborative studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Njala University, University of California, Davis USAID-PREDICT, and the University of Makeni identify MARV circulating in ERBs in Sierra Leone. PCR, antibody and virus isolation data from 1755 bats of 42 species shows active MARV infection in approximately 2.5% of ERBs. Phylogenetic analysis identifies MARVs that are similar to the Angola strain. These results provide evidence of MARV circulation in West Africa and demonstrate the value of pathogen surveillance to identify previously undetected threats.

Marburg virus (MARV), a close relative of the better-known Ebola virus (EBOV), is the founding member of the family Filoviridae1,2 and is known to cause sporadic outbreaks of severe, often fatal disease in humans. There have been 12 known Marburg virus disease (MVD) outbreaks, most recently in 2017 in Uganda3,4. The largest MVD outbreak on record occurred in Uige, Angola, in 2005, with 227 deaths out of 252 known cases5. This was the highest case-fatality ratio (CFR: 90%) recorded for any large filovirus outbreak, including the 2013–2016 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa (CFR: 41%,)6. A direct link to MARV spillover from bats was not made during the event in Angola. Consistent with the high CFR during the outbreak in Angola, the MARV Angola strain appears to be significantly more virulent than all other MARV strains (Musoke, Ravn, and Ozolin) in experimentally infected non-human primates7,8. The Angola outbreak was the only MVD outbreak to originate outside of East Africa; all previous MVD outbreaks occurred in, or originated from, Uganda, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), or South Africa ex Zimbabwe9,10. Other filoviruses circulating in Africa include the marburgvirus, Ravn virus (RAVV), as well as five ebolaviruses, EBOV, Sudan virus (SUDV), Tai Forest virus (TAFV), Bundibugyo virus (BDBV), and the recently discovered Bombali virus (BOMV)9,11.

Extensive field studies in Uganda12,13,14, DRC10, Kenya15, South Africa16, Gabon17,18, and Zambia19,20, as well as experimental infection studies in captive bats in the United States21,22 and South Africa23,24, have shown that the cave-dwelling Egyptian rousette bat (ERB; Rousettus aegyptiacus) is a primary natural reservoir of MARV. This discovery is consistent with the origins of MVD outbreaks that, when known, have been linked to caves or mines, with MARV most often having spilled over to miners who work underground in known ERB roosting sites, and occasionally to tourists who viewed ERBs too closely25,26,27,28. Infected ERBs shed MARV in saliva and urine, and the virus can persist for weeks in various tissues, particularly liver, spleen, and lymph nodes21,22. Under experimental conditions, MARV can be transmitted directly between ERBs in the absence of arthropod vectors. Furthermore, some infected bats appear to be super-shedders, capable of shedding a disproportionate amount of virus, leading to increased bat-bat transmission in accordance with the Pareto principle22. To date, arthropod vectors do not appear to contribute to natural enzootic transmission of MARV among ERBs10,29,30,31,32,33.

In equatorial Africa, ERBs live in very large, dense colonies sometimes numbering over 100,000 bats14. They can breed twice a year, producing thousands of susceptible juvenile bats every six months in a single ERB roost12,34. Field studies in Uganda showed that 2–3% of all ERBs are actively infected with marburgviruses (MARV and RAVV) at any one time and that infection levels spike biannually, up to 12% on average, in juvenile bats. Importantly, these seasonal spikes appear to be associated with increased risk of human exposure, as they coincide with >84% of known MARV spillover events to humans12. Despite the linkage of ERBs to human MVD outbreaks, attempts to mitigate risk through bat extermination were counterproductive and led to increased levels of active MARV infection in the recolonizing bat population13.

Since 2007, over 80 distinct MARV genomic sequences and 21 virus isolates have been obtained from tissues of infected wild-caught ERBs, representing every major MARV strain found in MVD outbreaks since 1967, with the exception of the Angola strain9. In Gabon, South Africa and Zambia, MARV was detected in ERBs despite no known associated human MVD outbreaks in the country16,17,18,19,20. Here, through a combined multi-institutional effort, we report the presence of MARV, including an Angola-like MARV, in ERBs in West Africa. Importantly, no MVD outbreaks have been reported in Sierra Leone despite the presence of MARV. Our findings highlight the value of engaging with all stakeholders with appropriate messaging that identify and mitigate pathogens of public health concern before recognized spillovers occur. This is in consonant with measures that ensure animal and environmental health. Moreover, it underpins the One Health surveillance approach that recognizes the interconnected relationship between people and other organisms (plants and animals) in a shared environment.

Research Paper