A Terrifying Time for Bats By Merlin Tuttle
The past month has seen a virtual explosion of premature speculation presented as though it were now proven fact, much of it traceable to a single article titled, “Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses,” that appeared in the June 14, 2017 issue of Nature. We’ve already issued a Bat Flash alert responding to this article, and to predecessors, all apparently part of a single cleverly planned campaign.
Sensational speculation has become widely cited as fact1, with spin-off damage that will be exceedingly difficult to reverse. All who truly care about bats have cause to be deeply concerned.
Due to scary speculation attempting to link the SARS outbreak of 2002 to bats, bats have recently become central in the search for viruses2. Thus, rapid advances in viral detection alone may have caused major bias. Also, the number of viruses found in bats is not necessarily indicative of risk.2 Many viruses are innocuous or even beneficial,3 including some that are closely related to deadly ones.4 Finally, the paper in question is based on models, and models are notorious for mistaken conclusions, regardless of the amount of data analyzed.5
A far more meaningful analysis should have considered the historic rarity of viral spillover from bats to humans. Many media stories now claim bats to be the primary source of so-called “emerging infectious diseases” like Ebola, though most of these speculations remain unproven.6- 7
Proponents of such speculation still cannot explain why hundreds of bat biologists, millions of people who eat bats, and the millions more who share cities with huge bat colonies are no less healthy than others. They can’t explain why bats artificially infected with Ebola haven’t become contagious or why virologists haven’t even been able to find live virus in the thousands of bats examined. Certainly, like all other mammals, bats must be capable of harboring at least a few dangerous viruses. Nevertheless, bats still have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with humans.1
The June 12, 2017 story by Amy Maxmen, titled “Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses,” published in Nature, continues the needlessly sensational presentation of bats as exceptionally dangerous animals. By simple insertion of the words “global” and “deadly” in the title, it implies bats worldwide to be a serious menace to human health.
The article begins by stating that “Bats are the major animal reservoir for coronaviruses worldwide….” In the reported study, nearly twice as many bats as rodents, shrews, and primates combined were examined, not surprising. The emphasis on easily captured bats, likely centered on colonial species, is an approach that appears to have become the norm. And it’s impossible to know the extent of resulting bias.
Late in the article, it is admitted that at least some of the newly discovered coronaviruses pose no “immediate threat to human health,” though insertion of the word “immediate” still implies they may be in the future. Because only a small fraction of coronaviruses infect humans, diversity in bats is not necessarily an indicator of risk.
At the end, where least likely to be noticed, it is admitted that such exhaustive searches for new viruses may be a waste of resources. Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, is quoted as saying “that researchers and politicians should direct their limited resources towards halting new outbreaks of pathogens that are known to be deadly in people, rather than trying to predict which virus will be the next to cross over to humans.”
Osterholm is further quoted that “We aren’t much better prepared for Ebola today than we were during the crisis in West Africa, so you have to wonder if we aren’t preparing for the outbreaks we know will happen in the near future, what good does it do to know about spillover events?”
Since bats appear to have an exceptionally good record of not causing disease outbreaks in humans, even where large colonies share major cities with us, Osterholm’s point seems strong.
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Once again, bats are plagued with a rash of sensational bat-attack and bat-disease stories, promoted by clever, but unscrupulous persons who know better. The motivation remains the same—greedy competition for public health funding. As noted by Mexico’s leading bat biologist and conservationist, Dr. Rodrigo Medellin, “unsupported statements and partial truths have been cleverly interwoven to present a picture that bats are the most dangerous, filthy, pathogen-harboring organisms on earth.” So-called virus hunters are linking already feared bats with deadly, but rare diseases, misleading governments to invest billions of dollars in projects of questionable value in saving human lives (USCDC 2015).
The current article in The Independent, is typical, first the scary headline that leaves a lasting impression on readers, despite later qualifiers, most of which go unread. The subtitle says, “Diseases in bats have been around for a long time and historically have not been a problem. Now, there is cause for concern.”
Those promoting this international campaign of fear are clever wordsmithers. They know just enough about bats and diseases to almost imperceptibly distort the truth, scaring people about potential, but unlikely events. Extremely low risks are made to seem imminent and possibly disastrous. And since neither bats nor viruses are well understood, they are ideal victims for such manipulation.
The article claims bats have been attacking humans in increasing numbers because their natural habitats are being destroyed through deforestation. This is a commonly propagated myth in recent scare stories. It appears to be an attempt to look like the writer isn’t anti-bat, but is simply attempting to be helpful. Bats nearly everywhere are in decline, and a growing proportion of the human population now lives in cities where there is less, rather than more likelihood of contact with bats. A veterinary college professor is quoted as saying that expanding cities are causing increasing contact—just the opposite of reality. The professor sounds like a reliable source, though he likely has no personal experience with bats.
It is reported that more than 40 people were bitten by vampires in just three months, with one death from rabies. But that’s in all of northeastern Brazil. This is likely one of the rarest causes of mortality that could have been reported for such a large area. Far more deaths likely occurred from bicycle accidents or dog attacks, though no one is likely to advocate ridding the area of bicycles or dogs!
The story verifies our worst concerns, reporting that authorities are “trying to control the bats, poisoning them and removing their roosting sites.” Highly beneficial species form the largest, most conspicuous colonies so they are the ones most easily found, becoming innocent victims of mass killing. In the current article, a doctor stresses that “Brazilian authorities must take the threat seriously.” And an accompanying photo shows an insect-eating bat, looking exceptionally vicious because it is snarling in self-defense.
Not until the next to last paragraph is it admitted that “Bats in the UK do not pose a threat to the human population.” This nearly universally repeated approach gives authors a disclaimer, but it appears deliberately located where it is least likely to be noticed.
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Virologists are still doggedly pursuing the search for an Ebola reservoir in bats, as reported in the storytitled Hunting for Ebola among the Bats of the Congo in the June 1, 2017 issue of Science (Kupferschmudt 2017), apparently attempting to ignore mounting evidence pointing elsewhere. The record of unsubstantiated speculation, attributing Ebola to bats is long and becoming an embarrassment to good science.
By 2014, researchers had discovered that 10% of gorillas in Central Africa have antibodies to Ebola, demonstrating that exposure or infection is not uniformly lethal as previously reported (Reed et al. 2014). Because great apes were said to be highly susceptible, virologists had insisted they couldn’t serve as reservoirs. Instead they pointed to bats.
Countering a huge, international disease scare campaign against bats is extremely challenging, but thanks to the loyal support of our uniquely dedicated members the truth is being heard, as seen in this week’s issue of Slate magazine. We are unfortunately still the only conservation organization brave enough to counter this international campaign backed by hundreds of millions of dollars. Promoters of fear are increasingly portraying themselves as bat conservationists attempting to help bats. They say bats are valuable and shouldn’t be killed, but their grossly exaggerated disease warnings remain deadly, no less than back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s when nearly everyone in America was led to believe that most bats were rabid. The impact on conservation efforts was devastating. States with the most indefensibly large rabies budgets led the propaganda, aided by unscrupulous pest control companies. However, states where health departments intensely publicized bats as dangerous achieved no reduction in human rabies compared to states that simply advised evaluation of all animal bites.
Too few of us today remember that, after Rachael Carson got DDT outlawed for general use in America, our CDC insisted on obtaining a special exemption so it could continue to use DDT to kill bats in buildings. Even now, our CDC has a policy that Canada and the State of Oregon have rejected, based on independent scientific evaluation.
A large proportion of remaining bats have had to take refuge in buildings, having lost their traditional roosts in caves and old growth forests. Yet I’m seeing a gradual return to the days of big bat business for exterminators. Now, they try to look like conservationists by including mention of how beneficial bats are and advising that they should not be killed while simultaneously attempting to scare people into hiring their eviction services, which less conspicuously still kills bats. With all the devastation already wrought by WNS in the U.S., the timing for intolerance couldn’t be worse.
Response to Smithsonian story, “Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?” Merlin Tuttle
Lorraine Boissoneault’s story, Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?, is clearly well intended. However, when it comes to fruit bats and Ebola it is based on outdated speculation that threatens serious harm to a group of mammals that is already in alarming decline. For a summary of current knowledge of bats versus Ebola and other rare, but so-called emerging diseases, and their speculated association with bats, I refer you to my article in the current edition of Issues in Science and Technology, titled “Give Bats a Break.”
Diseases that are millions of years old, but that are just now being discovered due to their rarity, are being referred to as “emerging” as an apparent public relations ploy to make them sound more dangerous. And speculating associations with bats makes them even more scary, since many people already fear bats. This has proven unprecedentedly effective in gaining hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to support so-called virus hunters, who must continue speculating about potentially dire threats from bat diseases to keep their grants flowing.
Bats historically have one of the world’s finest records of living safely with humans, first in caves and thatched huts, then in log cabins.
Read Merlin’s article, Give Bats a Break, in the Spring 2017 edition of Issues in Science and Technology. This report is based on Merlin’s review of thousands of scientific papers and popular media stories. And it is the first to expose how sensational speculation is fostering bad science in a self-perpetuating cycle of misdirected public health funding that threatens the future of bats. This is an issue that we cannot ignore.
Sensational National Public Radio Story Threatens Bats By Merlin Tuttle
Unfortunately, the normally objective and reliable NPR, in its broadcast interview titled, Why Killer Viruses Are On The Rise, has joined in spreading irresponsibly sensational fear of bats. The interview with a “virus hunter” is set in a Bornean rainforest. In the preamble, the announcer notes that, “It’s where deadly viruses hide out, waiting their chance to leap into a person and then spread around the world.”
At a time when bats and rainforests are both in alarming decline, and in desperate need of protection, the program goes on to portray them in the scariest of terms. The reporter notes that rainforests “have lots of crazy animals” that “have lots of crazy viruses” and explains that what the virus hunter “really wants is to catch a bat.”
When the first bat is caught it is described as cute, but the reporter quickly points out that, “bats are arguably one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They triggered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the pandemic of killer pneumonia back in 2003, that was called SARS, and they’re behind one of the viruses scientists think could cause the next big one, Nipah.” This is unproven speculation reported as fact. But it gets even worse.
Merlin’s response to Chicago story about bats and rabies
By Merlin Tuttle
This is an outrageously distorted story, obviously planted by those who profit most from public fear. Rabies transmission from bats to humans is extremely rare (just 1.5 Americans per year) and normally involves a bite that is detected at the time. However some people fail to seek medical advice and post-exposure vaccination, and thus are at risk of contracting rabies. When we put risks in perspective, our own beloved dogs kill approximately 20 times more Americans annually than die of rabies from bats.
We’ve learned to live reasonably safely with dogs. It’s even easier to live safely with bats. Just don’t attempt to handle them, and the odds of being harmed by one are exceedingly remote. If indeed one assumes that 8 of 10 Chicago homes harbor bats as claimed, that is proof in itself that bats make safe neighbors. If they are anywhere nearly as dangerous as implied, then rabies should be vastly more common in Chicagoans.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 50 years of in-depth knowledge and experience Merlin Tuttle, renowned bat expert, educator and wildlife photographer founded MTBC with one true goal in mind; teaching the world to understand and appreciate the vital contributions bats make to human beings and the world we live in.