Gabon's virus hunters: In search of the 'next Covid-19'

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Dressed in biohazard suits despite the sweltering heat, a group of researchers trek through the dense Gabonese jungle on a hunt for wild animals. Their goal is to collect samples and identify pathogens that could pose a future risk to humans and potentially stop a future pandemic.

The researchers are part of a team from Gabon's International Medical Research Centre of Franceville (CIRMF). Their destination is the Zadié cave, home to swarms of bats.

These small mammals are suspected of being at the origin of many of the major viruses to have jumped to humans in recent years, including SARS, MERS, Ebola and the coronavirus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic.

"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 haemorrhagic viruses, we also monitor other viruses in these animal populations," researcher Gaël Maganga told AFP.

The CIRMF is home to one of only two labs in Africa authorised to handle some of the world's most dangerous viruses.

Researchers here have recently found a number of coronaviruses circulating in the Zadié cave bats, some of which are close to human coronaviruses.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the risk of animal viruses transferring to humans, particularly as expanding human populations come into increasingly close contact with wild animals.

"Today we say that epidemics can increase because of human activities like hunting and logging," said Maganga. "Which increasingly expose humans to animals carrying viruses."

According to a group of UN biodiversity experts, around 1.7 million unidentified viruses circulate in animal populations,of which 540,000 to 850,000 have the capacity to infect humans.