Epidemiological researchers in West Africa have discovered a new strain of the Ebola virus among bats in Sierra Leone.

Public domain image/Mondo Magic
Public domain image/Mondo Magic

Known as the Bombali virus, the new strain was found during a study by joint teams from the United States and the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

The study by the Predict Ebola Host Research Project in West Africa was done in conjunction with scientists from the University of California Davis and Columbia University, with the aim of improving epidemiological understanding and preparedness for future Ebola outbreaks in the region.

The research formed part of a post-outbreak mitigation strategy for the 2015 Ebola outbreak which killed an estimated 11 000 people in the three countries.  Researchers said the Bombali virus was discovered in 5 out of 241 bats taken from the Bombali region in Sierra Leone.

According to the study, the Bombali virus is distinct from other Ebola strains. It is not yet known whether it can cause disease outbreaks, although results show that it has the potential to infect human cells.

The report called for further investigations to understand the specific risks posed by the Bombali virus strain. Among other specifics, the Predict Research Ebola Host Research Project is checking wildlife specimens for known pathogens that can cause disease outbreaks.

The Sierra Leonean government says it will engage local communities and roll out public education campaigns to raise awareness of the new strain and precautions to be taken against it.

The 2014-2016 West African Ebola disease outbreak was caused by the Zaire virus, the deadliest strain which was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976.