This summer saw the worst avalanche of grossly exaggerated disease speculation ever launched against bats. While seemingly countless publications world-wide needlessly frightened millions of readers, Mongabay journalist, John Cannon, investigated and bravely countered the tide in his article, “Bats and viruses: Beating back a bad reputation,” published August 29.
Mongabay is one of the world’s leading environmental websites. It reaches 28 million readers in nine languages annually, making its defense of bats especially helpful at a time when bats are facing so much scary misinformation. We’ve listed actions you can take to share your thanks at the end of this post.
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
Michael Osterholm, director at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, notes that scientists should be careful to distinguish between what is possible and what is likely. He points out that rabies, for example, is widespread in bats and readily infects humans. However, “If that was enough for transmission we should all be dying of bat rabies in the U.S.” The virus can be transmitted only if an infected bat bites a human. That rarely happens, so transmission is rare.2
Additionally, we must question why so many limited health resources are being diverted to some of the world’s rarest diseases. Even if we lump all these together (including SARS, MERS, Nipa, Hendra, Marburg and Ebola) they have caused fewer than 20,000 deaths in two decades.8 In contrast, dog-transmitted rabies alone kills 60,000 humans annually9 with hardly a ripple of comment. And even that is tiny compared to other sources of human mortality, such as obesity10, which are far easier to prevent.
The only logical explanation for such a skewed emphasis appears to be solicitation of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants11for otherwise difficult-to-justify research.1 The last campaign against bats centered on rabies, rendering bat conservation nearly impossible in the 1970’s, while huge profits went to rabies and pest control industries.12 This time the profits are going to virus hunters11 with even more potential for harming bats.
Anyone paying attention will see a regularly repeated strategy. Over and over, the most sensationally exaggerated stories cite the same virus hunting scientists and their organization.13-16 They present themselves as bat-loving conservationists, but it’s time to ask if perhaps they don’t love big grants a bit more than bats!
Their strategy is becoming quite clear. Begin with a sensational headline, followed by a few paragraphs of apparently supporting statements from similarly motivated scientists. Appear to be bat conservation-minded by often saying that it’s not the bats’ fault. It’s because we’re invading their territory. 11,13-16 Sometimes (far from consistent) ending with an admission that the speculation has yet to be proven, including qualifying statements that bats are valuable and should never be killed. Never mind abundant evidence that people don’t tolerate, and often kill, animals they fear, particularly if bats are believed to be disease-laden.12
As in the Nature example, most subsequent reports focus on the sensational beginning, often completely omitting the more moderate ending, exactly what a clever PR firm, attempting to foment fear of bats would advise. Unfortunately, it’s working like magic for scientists who know better. Their greed isn’t just harming bats. It’s also harming public health,1 and eventually will compromise the credibility of science in general at a time when it is most needed.
Currently, there is no better way to help bats than for readers to complain to publishers of irresponsible stories. We have already addressed the original one in Nature, but the many subsequent publishers, who typically focused only on the worst elements, also should be contacted. We encourage you to continue sharing your opinions with them and thank you for your participation on behalf of bats thus far.
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.
Choose any or all means of contact to reach out and share your opinion in your own words.
Send a Contact Form to The Independent. Be sure to include the article and author information.
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.
Over the past decade a growing number of peer-reviewed research publications have reported likely-to-be-unsustainable bat kills at wind turbines, also reporting that kills could be reduced by 44-90% by slightly delaying turbine cut-in speeds (the wind speeds at which turbines are activated to begin rotating to produce energy) during the bats’ fall migration.
The best available calculations indicate that by implementing these changes, annual power output would be reduced by less than 1%. Yet only a few companies have acted on even these economically feasible recommendations, despite repeated warnings that whole species could be threatened with extinction without prompt action. Keim raises the obvious question, “how people already know so much about solving the problem, yet do so little.” The answer seems obvious—Too many people still don’t know, and too many of us who do have remained silent for too long.
Please take a moment to thank author, Brandon Keim, and the editorial staff at Anthropocene for reminding readers that alarming and growing numbers of ecologically essential bats are being killed needlessly by carelessly operated wind turbines.
Choose any or all means of contact to reach out and send thanks in your own words.
Send a Contact Form to Anthropocene Magazine. Be sure to include the article, author and editors by name when you thank them for their much needed reporting on bats.
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.
As one who in 1985 played a lead role in convincing the New South Wales (NSW) Minister for the Environment and Planning, Bob Carr, to provide statewide protection for flying foxes, I am extremely disappointed to see such progress reversed decades later by a predecessor. Grey-headed flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers upon which many of Australia’s unique plants and animals rely.
Nevertheless, their numbers have declined dramatically over the past hundred years. They first were massively exterminated by fruit growers, because during periodic droughts, when forests failed to flower, starving bats would invade orchards. Thanks to excellent research, orchards can now be protected. However, the bats’ traditional roosting habitats often have been overrun by urbanization. Once again these bats are in trouble, often with few options remaining. In small numbers, they may be enjoyed. But during unpredictable spikes in gum tree flowering, these sophisticated commuters can be attracted long distances. When bats weighing up to two pounds and having wingspans of more than three feet suddenly increase by as much as 10-fold, noise and odor can become a serious problem.
Excellent means of protecting fruit orchards have been developed, but urban nuisances have not yet been studied sufficiently to find viable solutions. As flying fox experts, Justin Welbergen and Peggy Eby recently explained in their insightful article, Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying foxes in urban Australia, grey-headed flying foxes can travel thousands of kilometers in a single year and quickly respond to changing conditions far beyond the boundaries of any one state. To resolve nuisances without loss of essential services, we must learn much more about what attracts them to specific roosts and how best to provide suitable alternatives when their choices create nuisances. (more…)
What’s going on? The October 26, 2016 issue of ScienceDaily published an especially misleading story that poses a direct threat to both bats and public health. In this story, a fragment of an influenza A-like virus was discovered in a Latin American fruit-eating bat. The initial conclusion was that it posed “little, if any, pandemic threat to humans.”
A team of lab scientists then used this new influenza-like material to bio-engineer a new influenza virus. To do this, they analyzed cells from over 30 different viral species for their capacity to become hosts. Then the cell that was most susceptible to the engineered virus was tested and found capable of infecting a variety of cells, including those of humans.
The resulting publication ends with this self-serving justification. “Bats are natural hosts for several highly pathogenic viruses. In the past, Ebola and rabies virus were repeatedly transmitted from bats to humans and caused deadly diseases. The new observation that human cells can be infected with bat influenza A-like viruses is a hint that these viruses could also potentially be transmitted to humans. Although there is no evidence yet for such transmissions, the new findings are a wake-up call for more research.”
The claim that Ebola has been repeatedly transmitted from bats to humans is false, completely lacking in scientific documentation, and the authors fail to admit that bat-transmitted rabies is one of our planet’s rarest human disease threats. It’s time to focus on real threats, like cancer and obesity. (more…)
What’s Going On?
In its October 2016 issue, Sky Delta, Delta Airlines in-flight magazine, published a particularly offensive article titled Dare-to-Eat-Foods, sub-headed “Looking to up your culinary fear factor? Give one of these five uncommon-in-the-U.S. items a try,” by Andrew Zimmern. The article recommends hunting and eating bats, animals that are being over-hunted to the verge of extinction, some having already become extinct due to too many being eaten.
What To Do
Please contact their editorial department (click here) and let them know that you strongly disapprove of their story promoting bat-eating, that most species being eaten are already in alarming decline, some already extinct from too many having been eaten.
What are Friends For?
Reinforcement! So, use them. Talk about it. Tweet about it. Tell all your pals. The bigger our voice, the bigger our muscles!
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.