Bat Flash! Smithsonian Promotes Misleading Virus Hunter Claims

By Merlin Tuttle
8/3/18

 

The July 11, 2018 edition of Smithsonian.com contains another highly misleading story on virus hunters protecting us from pandemics. The story by Katherine J. Wu is titled, “A Never-Before-Seen-Virus Has Been Detected in Myanmar’s Bats.” Wu claims that to prevent the next Pandemic, we need to pinpoint it at the source. She then reports that “researchers in Myanmar have hit pay dirt with a never-before-seen virus that infects wrinkle-lipped bats—a virus in the same family as the ones that cause SARS and MERS.”

Merlin with a young Black flying fox (Pteropus alecto).

After further extolling the virtues of virus hunting, she quotes Chelsea Wood, reportedly a conservation ecologist, as saying that, “Tropical rainforests [in particular] are just cesspools of viral diversity—the highest viral diversity on the planet.” The headline and rhetoric in this article sound more like grocery store tabloid writing than something one would expect from America’s leading institution of science.

This story is a complete contradiction of a paper by epidemiologists, Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Andersen, titled “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction” which appeared in the Journal Nature on June 7, 2018. [1] Referring to virus hunting, they conclude that “given the rarity of outbreaks and the complexity of host-pathogen interactions, it is arrogant to imagine that we could use such surveys to predict and mitigate the emergence of disease.” They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention. They conclude that such approaches are an extremely costly waste of limited public health funds and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises.”

New viruses can be found wherever we look. Many are innocuous or even beneficial, [2]  including some that are closely related to deadly ones. [4] The number of viruses found in bats is not necessarily indicative of risk. [5] Nevertheless, promoters of virus hunting make low risks seem imminent and extreme. And since few people understand bats or viruses, the combination is ideal for manipulation used to justify outrageously large misappropriation of funds. [1]

Historically, bats have an outstanding track record. They rarely transmit disease to humans, even where millions closely associate with people in cities. [3] Yet virus hunters are creating a self-perpetuating cycle of fear that threatens their future. That people seldom protect, and often kill animals they fear, especially in the case of bats, is historically well documented.

The Smithsonian.com story follows a familiar virus hunter pattern of promotion. It begins with a scary, headline-grabbing title, followed by speculation of potentially great danger to be prevented, and appears to be confirmed by reported-to-be-independent colleagues. At the end, they add an apparent disclaimer. This one is typical, stating that viral discovery studies can lead to demonizing animals, noting that, “Just because they carry nasty diseases doesn’t mean we should kill these species.”

It’s time to end costly virus hunts that squander public health resources and needlessly create fear of already declining, but ecologically essential bats. As our nation’s highest institution of science, when the Smithsonian publishes misinformation it is particularly damaging.

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to the staff at Smithsonian.com and politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate speculation that creates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article in order for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!

 

This series of photos show me radio-tracking a bat to its roost in a giant, hollow tree in the Smithsonian’s Barro Colorado Island rainforest, than squeezing inside to photograph the colony. If rainforests, and the bats that live there were truly “cesspools of dangerous viruses,” I should have died a horrible death long ago!

Little big-eared bat (Micronycteris megalotis) and Seba’s short-tailed fruit bat (Carollia perspicillata) roosting in the hollow tree.

 

 

References

[1] E. Holmes, A. Rambout and K. Andersen, “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction,” Nature, no. 558, pp. 180-182, 2018.
[2] J. Enriquez and S. Gullans , ““Viruses, the Roadrunners of Evolution”,” in Evolving Ourselves, New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2015, pp. 99-103.
[3] M. Tuttle, “Fear of Bats and its Consequences,” Journal of Bat Research and Conservation, vol. 10, no. 1, 2017.
[4] M. Miranda and N. Miranda, “Reston ebolavirus in humans and animals in the Philippines: A review.,” Journal of Infectous Diseases, vol. 204, no. 3, pp. S757-S760, 2011.
[5] K. Kupferschmidt, “Bats may be carrying the next SARS pandemic,” Science, 2013.

 

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Epidemiologists Acknowledge Virus Hunting as a Costly Waste

By Merlin Tuttle
6/15/18

Leading epidemiologists are finally acknowledging that the recently huge expenditures for virus hunting (mostly focused on bats) have little practical value in disease prevention. The June 7 issue of Nature contains a key paper titled, “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction.” In it Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Anderson combine their expertise to advocate a much-needed change of course in prevention of viral transmission from animals to humans, one that may also considerably brighten the future of bats.

They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises about disease prevention.” They “urge those working on infectious disease to focus funds and efforts on a much simpler and cost-effective way to mitigate outbreaks—proactive, real-time surveillance of human populations.”

Bats have an exceptional record of living safely with humans. But, they have been disproportionately searched, and victimized by virus hunter speculation, apparently because they are unpopular and easy to sample. This is an Angolan free-tailed bat (Mops condylurus), a species targeted for eradication following premature speculation linking it to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

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Thanks to Mongabay for Balanced Nipah Reporting

By Merlin Tuttle
5/31/18

We greatly appreciate Mongabay for its handling of the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, India. Its story, “Nipah infection in Kerala: Don’t blame the bats alone; improve public health,” appeared on May 30, authored by Haritha John and Gopikrishna Warrier. Needless alarm was avoided by balanced reporting. As so often is the case, the rarest threats make the biggest news. Fortunately, in this instance, the news was accurate, so did not cause needless panic.

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Bat Flash! Respond to Reuters News Release Blaming Bats for New Ebola Outbreak

By Merlin Tuttle
5/15/18

 

I share Benoit Nyemba and Fiston Mahamba’s concern regarding a potential resurgence of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as Reuters News reported on May 8. Nevertheless, continuing to blame bats as the source is likely to reverse conservation progress essential to  ecosystem health (Lopez-Baucells et al. 2018) and delay successful Ebola prevention. Understanding the true source is essential.

A male straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum). This is the species that was first erroneously blamed for infecting the two-year-old toddler identified as the index case that triggered the 2013-2014 Ebola outbreak. In the end no one could explain how a bat that never enters buildings and has a three-foot wingspan could have contacted a toddler without anyone knowing about it!

Bats can indeed transmit deadly diseases like rabies and Nipah to humans, though transmission is exceedingly rare and easily avoided. In the case of Ebola, bats have been too easily assumed guilty. A wide variety have been tested at outbreak locations. But, “Ebolavirus has yet to be isolated from bats, and no direct evidence links bats to Ebolavirus infection in humans.” (Spengler et al. 2016) Virologists still know “nothing about where it comes from and how it causes outbreaks.” (Kupferschmidt 2017).

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Thanks to Atlantic Monthly

I wholeheartedly applaud Atlantic Monthly’s defense of bats at a time when so many other publications are spreading grossly exaggerated stories attempting to link bats to some of the world’s rarest but also scariest diseases. Bats have never needed help more, nor have we needed them more! As the one who persuaded the citizens of Austin to protect instead of eradicating its now world-famous colony, I’m proud to report that none of millions of tourists who come to enjoy their spectacular emergences has ever been harmed. By simply leaving bats alone (not attempting to handle them), we have exceedingly little to fear and much to gain. Our bats eat tons of crop and yard pests every summer night and attract millions of tourist dollars each year.

Thanks to people who increasingly understand and help bats, even those species most devastated by WNS are gradually beginning to recover. The only cure will come from improved protection and restoration of key bat habitats, especially their hibernation caves. It’s far too late, as well as impractical, to find a cure for WNS. Going forward, all resources should be devoted to recovery.

We invite everyone to share praise and encouragement via email or leaving a comment on the article page.

 

Photo caption: Tourists observing the emergence of 1.5 million Brazilian free-tailed bats from crevices beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas.

 

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Bat Flash! Praise to Mongabay for Timely Defense of Bats

By Merlin Tuttle
9/5/17

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.

Lesser long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) are primary pollinators of agave plants essential to annual production of tequila and mescal worth billions of dollars to the Mexican economy. But thousands at a time have been burned in their caves due to unfounded fear.

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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.

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Bat Flash! Nature Sensationalizes Bat Coronaviruses

By Merlin Tuttle
6/13/17

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.

A Chinese horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus sinicus) from Hong Kong. It has been suggested that a coronavirus found in this species is the direct ancestor of the virus that causes SARS. Nevertheless, despite seemingly endless speculation, no experiment has ever shown these, or any other bats, to be capable of transmitting a coronavirus to primates or other animals.

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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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