A team of scientists in China and Singapore just published findings in the journal Nature Microbiology describing a new genus of filovirus detected in bats in Southern China. The new virus is evolutionarily similar to the notorious Ebola and Marburg viruses, and while there is no current threat of a human outbreak, the researchers suspect it is capable of interspecies transmission.

The filovirus family may be small, but it continues to hold some of the more concerning pathogenic threats to humanity. There are three genera in the filovirus family: Cuevavirus, Ebolavirus, and Marburgvirus. All filoviruses are classified as Risk Group 4 Pathogens by the World Health Organization. This means they are deadly to humans and require the highest levels of biosafety protections.

Bats are considered to be the primary natural reservoir for most current filoviruses. Several types of fruit bats have been found to be able to carry the Ebola virus without getting sick and many modern Marburg and Ebola outbreaks are suspected to have originated with people visiting bat-infested caves or mines. So scientists have been working hard to study different bat populations in the hopes of better understanding the origin and variety of these deadly filoviruses.

"Studying the genetic diversity and geographic distribution of bat-borne filoviruses is very important for risk assessment and outbreak prevention as this type of infectious disease can affect the general public without warning with devastating consequences," explains Wang Lin-Fa, senior author on the new study.

The new research reports detecting a novel virus found in Rousettus bats in Měnglà County, Yunnan Province, southern China. After extensive genetic sequencing it was revealed that this new virus was significantly different from other known viruses. Sharing only between 30 and 50 percent of its genetic code with other filoviruses, this new discovery is distinct enough to be classified within its own new genus. The genus has been dubbed Dianlovirus, and the virus specifically is called Mengla, after the location if was found in.

Little is clearly known about the Mengla virus at this point, but the cursory research does indicate it shares many functional similarities with both Ebola and Marburg viruses. Mengla was found to gain entry into cells using the same molecular receptor as other pathogenic filoviruses, suggesting it could be as potent as other viruses in the family and just as likely to be able to jump across into different species.

Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, a UK-based biomedical research charity suggests there may have already been unnoticed "spillover" events in China where the virus has infected humans in local regions. Talking to STAT, Farrar says there are plenty on unanswered questions raised by this new study.

"What it means for human health? I don't think anybody knows," Farrar said to STAT. "Somebody's just got to screen some populations around where it was found, human populations, to see how many people have got antibodies to it and how common human infection is."

While the new discovery is undoubtedly concerning, the researchers are not interested in raising unnecessary alarm. Patrick Casey, Senior Vice Dean of Research from the Duke-NUS Medical School, notes the work as vital in tracking the emergence of viruses before they result in human outbreaks.

"With globalization, it is important to identify and assess the risk of potential infectious disease outbreaks and, from it, develop effective controls strategies and treatments," says Casey.

The new study was published in the journal Nature Microbiology.