A Terrifying Time for Bats

A Terrifying Time for Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
7/2/17

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.

An adult male Straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum) from Kenya. This is the species first blamed for the “index case” of Ebola in the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. The species was soon exonerated. In fact, it is so resistant to Ebola that it is an unlikely source. Recent studies suggest a source other than bats.

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

Thai women collecting guano in Rakang Cave. These women spend countless thousands of hours sweeping up the guano and bagging it while being pooped on by hundreds of thousands of fruit- and insect-eating bats high overhead and report no ill effects.

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

Children begin helping collect guano almost as soon as they can walk.
It seems that, if disease from bats was a serious threat, certainly these happy children, working in Thailand’s Khao Chong Phran Cave should have been short-lived! While taking these photos, I wasn’t protected from any of the so-called “emerging diseases,” nor have I been protected anywhere else, and over decades of time, I too have remained healthy.
I first met this 96-year-old guano-collector in Thailand’s Rakang Cave in 1981. When I returned 31 years later, Siri Tanomsri and his only slightly younger, also guano-collecting, wife remained in outstanding health despite decades of working in a bat cave. Such historic evidence simply doesn’t support recent speculation that exposure to bats is dangerous.

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

Tourists observing 1.5 million free-tailed bats emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas. When these bats began moving into newly created crevices beneath this mid-town bridge, health officials warned they were rabid and dangerous. Yet, by simply posting small signs asking visitors not to handle the bats, no one has been harmed in more than 35 years of mutually beneficial coexistence.

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 

The famous bat colony in Austin, Texas, consumes tons of crop and yard pests nightly, attracts millions of tourist dollars annually, and has harmed no one. Learning to live harmoniously with bats promotes public health by maintaining a safer environment with fewer pesticides. For anyone who simply doesn’t handle bats, the odds of harm are too remote to measure.

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.

 

 

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Behind the Latest Ebola Story in Science

By Merlin Tuttle
6/7/17

Virologists are still doggedly pursuing the search for an Ebola reservoir in bats, as reported in the story titled 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.

A hammer-headed bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) eating a rose apple (Eugenia jambos) in Ivory Coast. This species is now the central focus of the Ebola reservoir search reported in Science. It is a key seed disperser in areas in need of reforestation.

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Response to Inappropriate Coverage of Bats and Ebola in Smithsonian Publication

Response to Smithsonian story, “Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?”
Merlin Tuttle
5/9/17

 

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.

Hundreds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) beginning their evening departure from a city park in Ivory Coast, Africa. Cities often provide the only homes safe from commercial hunters who sell them for people to eat. Despite such large numbers having lived in close association with humans throughout recorded history, they have not caused disease outbreaks. Their remarkable safety record casts grave doubt on recent speculation of their being dangerous carriers of disease.

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BAT FLASH! Sensational NPR Story Threatens Bats

Sensational National Public Radio Story Threatens Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
2/14/17

 

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.

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UPDATE!  Ebola virus researchers considering alternative reservoir hypotheses, bats unlikely

Hundeds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) emerging from their roost in a city park in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Such huge colonies have occupied African cities throughout recorded history without causing disease outbreaks.
Hundreds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) emerging from their roost in a city park in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Such huge colonies have occupied African cities throughout recorded history without causing disease outbreaks.

Following years of headline speculation reporting bats to be the reservoir for Ebola, a review of current knowledge points elsewhere. This often fatal disease is caused by the Ebolavirus genus, which includes five species (Sudan, Zaire, Bundibugyo, Tai Forest and Reston virus). The geographical distribution of these species along separate river basins is inconsistent with a highly mobile source, such as bats, that easily cross basin borders. (more…)

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Ebola: Bats Prematurely Blamed

Ebola: Bats Prematurely Blamed
By Merlin Tuttle
1/14/16

If public health concerns were based on actual threats to human mortality, diseases speculated to be spread by bats would take a distant back seat. Even our beloved dogs are many times more dangerous than bats (1). Real killers, like consumption of over processed and contaminated foods dwarf any risks associated with animals (2).

Yet we squander millions of scarce public health dollars on witch hunts for rare diseases in bats, when those funds could save far more human lives if spent on reducing already proven killers such as obesity and environmental toxicants linked to escalating rates of cancer, heart disease, dementia and diabetes.

An adult male straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum), the species most often blamed for Ebola.

In recent years speculation linking scary diseases to bats has gained unprecedented media headlines and grants.

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