Characterizing and evaluating the zoonotic potential of novel viruses discovered in vampire bats


The contemporary surge in metagenomic sequencing has transformed knowledge of viral diversity in wildlife. However, evaluating which newly discovered viruses pose sufficient risk of infecting humans to merit detailed laboratory characterization and surveillance remains largely speculative. Machine learning algorithms have been developed to address this imbalance by ranking the relative likelihood of human infection based on viral genome sequences, but are not yet routinely applied to viruses at the time of their discovery. Here, we characterized viral genomes detected through metagenomic sequencing of feces and saliva from common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) and used these data as a case study in evaluating zoonotic potential using molecular sequencing data. Of 58 detected viral families, including 17 which infect mammals, the only known zoonosis detected was rabies virus; however, additional genomes were detected from the families Hepeviridae, Coronaviridae, Reoviridae, Astroviridae and Picornaviridae, all of which contain human-infecting species. In phylogenetic analyses, novel vampire bat viruses most frequently grouped with other bat viruses that are not currently known to infect humans. In agreement, machine learning models built from only phylogenetic information ranked all novel viruses similarly, yielding little insight into zoonotic potential. In contrast, genome composition-based machine learning models estimated different levels of zoonotic potential, even for closely related viruses, categorizing one out of four detected hepeviruses and two out of three picornaviruses as having high priority for further research. We highlight the value of evaluating zoonotic potential beyond ad hoc consideration of phylogeny and provide surveillance recommendations for novel viruses in a wildlife host which has frequent contact with humans and domestic animals.

Viruses, 13(2): 252