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.

These experts explain that predicting when and where a virus will emerge in people is misguided and unlikely to be achievable. Determining which of an estimated 1.6 million animal viruses, deemed to be potentially capable of transmission to humans, would also prove prohibitively costly. 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.”

Currently, the most effective way to fight outbreaks is to monitor human populations in the countries and locations that are most vulnerable. Recommended actions include detailed screening and isolation of people exhibiting difficult-to-diagnose symptoms and monitoring of animal die-offs.

This is not the first warning against recent investment of billions of dollars on viral witch hunts that unfortunately have focused primarily on bats. Nevertheless, it appears to be the first to be taken seriously by a major journal of science.

On June 17, 2017, Nature published a paper, “Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses,” which claimed that finding these viruses could help predict where they are likely to make the next jump from animals to humans. After supporting virus hunting in bats, at the very end, it briefly admitted that Michael Osterholm, a prominent epidemiologist, believes that researchers and politicians should, instead direct their limited resources to halting outbreaks of already known-to-be deadly viruses.

A similar article titled, “Can Virus Hunters Stop the Next Pandemic Before It Happens?” was published on January 25, 2018 by the Smithsonian. Though this article asks the right question, it too mostly promotes the virus hunting approach. Only at the very end, does it acknowledge Robert Tesh, also a leading expert on zoonotic viruses, as having an opposing view.

Referring to the so-called virus hunters, he expressed his opinion that “A lot of the stuff they produce is hype. It’s more PR than science.” Tesh refers to Zika and West Nile viruses, noting that neither is new. They were transported to new areas, then spilled over, events that he doubts could have been predicted. He also notes that many reassortment viruses mutate quickly and that no amount of discovery could prepare for that. Tesh concludes that “Given these variables and how little we really understand them, people who claim they can predict what will happen are fooling themselves and the funding agency.”

Though Osterland, Tesh and others have previously expressed doubts about virus hunter claims, the current paper in Nature is the first to treat such concerns with appropriate respect. I’m delighted to see such progress in countering a now almost universal misperception that, has not only led to huge misallocation of public health funding, but also threatens the future of inappropriately maligned bats.

 

References

Holmes, E.C., A. Rambout, and K.G. Andersen. 2018. Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction. Nature, 558:180-182.

Maxmen, A. 2017. Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses. Nature, 546:340.

Morrison, J. 2018. Can virus hunters stop the next pandemic before it happens? SmithsonMag.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-to-stop-next-animal-borne-pandemic-180967908/.

Tuttle, M.D. 2017. Give bats a break. Issues in Science and Technology 33, (Spring 2017):41-50.

Tuttle, M.D. 2018. Fear of bats and its consequences. J. Bat Research and Conservation, 10(1).  https://doi.org/10.14709/ BarbJ.10.1.2017.09.

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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.

Fruit-eating bats appear to be the natural reservoir for this virus. However, Nipah is easily avoidable, as noted in the Mongabay article. Human infections originate from drinking unpasteurized palm juice or from contact with pigs who have eaten contaminated fruit.  The reported outbreak did kill 14 people, mostly from person-to-person transmission within a family and their immediate contacts. However, put in perspective, it was hardly grounds for the kind of panic too often created by needlessly scary speculation of potential pandemics killing millions. Thanks to level-headed health officials and media coverage, eradication of ecologically and economically essential bats was avoided.

 

A greater short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx) stealing a sip of sweet palm juice, often collected and consumed by people as a delicious drink. Humans who drink this juice only after pasteurization are safe from infection.

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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).

Early Ebola outbreaks were traced to human consumption of infected chimpanzees, gorillas and duikers (Rouquet et al. 2005), though these animals were believed to be too susceptible to serve as reservoirs (Wittmann et al. 2007).

Nevertheless, subsequent research revealed Ebola antibodies in 10 percent of gorillas (Reed et al. 2014)  and in 18.7 percent of pygmies (Mulangu et al. 2016), demonstrating that exposure is not as uniformly lethal in either great apes or humans as previously believed. Nancy Sullivan, a viral immunologist with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, notes that “there is little evidentiary data to document widespread death of apes from Ebola” (Pedris 2017). These discoveries provide potential breakthroughs in the hunt for reservoirs.

The preponderance of evidence now points to sources other than bats (Leendertz 2016). There are four African species of Ebola: Sudan, Zaire, Bundibugyo, and Tai Forest Ebola. The geographical distributions are along separate river basins, and this is inconsistent with a highly mobile source, such as bats. Bats easily cross river basins.  Experimentally infected bats can survive infection, as often cited, but they also show no evidence of viral shedding and are unlikely transmitters (Paweska et al. 2016).

Current claims that bats are the most likely sources of Ebola appear to have gained momentum from careless reporting of the index case for the 2013-2014 outbreak. The first team to investigate speculated a fruit bat origin, despite a complete lack of supporting evidence, as noted by a second team who also found no evidence of Ebola in a large sample of both fruit and insect-eating bats, but still speculated an insect-eating bat origin, whereupon the roost was burned with the bats inside (Saez et al. 2015).

It now seems likely that the disproportionate epidemiological focus on bats may have delayed much needed progress (Tuttle 2017) while doing great harm to the conservation of bats (Lopez-Baucells et al. 2018). Bats are economically and ecologically invaluable, but they also rank among our planet’s most endangered wildlife (Voigt and Kingston 2015). It’s time to halt the bias. People don’t tolerate animals they fear, and we need to know where Ebola is coming from.

 

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to the staff at Reuters News 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 premature 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!

 

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 the bats for people to eat. Despite such large numbers having lived in close association with humans throughout recorded history, they have not caused any known disease outbreaks. Their remarkable safety record casts grave doubt on recent speculation of their being dangerous spreaders of Ebola.

References

Kupferschmidt, K. 2017. Hunting for Ebola among the bats of the Congo.  Science, June 1.

Leendertz, S.A.J. 2016. Testing new hypotheses regarding ebolavirus reservoirs. Viruses 8(2), 30; doi:10. 3390/v8020030.

Lopez-Baucells, A., Rocha, R. and A. Fernandez-Llamazares. 2018. When bats go viral: negative framings in virological research imperil bat conservation. Mammal Review 48(1): 62-66.

Mulangu, S., M. Borchert, J. Paweska, A. Tshomba, A. Afounde, A Kulidri, R. Swanepoel, J.J. Muyembe-Tamfum, and P. Van der Stuyft. 2016. High prevalence of IgG antibodies to Ebola virus in the Efe pygmy population in the Watsa region, Democratic Republic of the Congo. BMC Infec. Dis. June 10;16;263

Paweska, J.T., N. Storm, A.A. Grobbelaar, W. Markotter, A. Kemp, and P.J. van Vuren. 2016. Experimental inoculation of Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) with Ebola virus. Viruses 8(2):29.

Pedris, L. 2017. Going viral: How advancements in Ebola disease detection in wild apes can help to prevent dangerous outbreaks. Mongabay, May 4.

Reed, P.E., S Mulangu, K.N. Cameron, A.U. Ondzie, D. Joly, M. Bermejo, P. Rouquet, G. Fabozzi, M. Bailey, Z. Shen, B.F. Kele, B. Hahn, W.B. Karesh, and N.J. Sullivan. 2014. A new approach for monitoring Ebolavirus in wild great apes. PLOS, Sept. 18, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0003143.

Rouquet, P. J-M. Froment, M. Bermejo, A. Kilbourn, W. Karesh, P. Reed, B. Kumulunqui, P. Yaba, A. Delicat, P.E. Rollin, and E.M. Leroy. 2005. Wild animal mortality monitoring in human Ebola outbreaks, Gabon and Republic of Congo, 2001-2003. Emerg. Infect. Dis. 11(2):283-290.

Saez, A.M., S. Weiss, K. Nowak, V. Lapeyre, F. Zimmermann, A. Dux, H.S. Kuhl, M. Kaba, S. Regnaut, K. Merkel, A. Sachse, U. Theisen, L. Villanyi, C. Boesch, P.W. Dabrowski, A. Radonic, A. Nitsche, S.A. J. Leendertz, S. Petterson, S. Becker, V. Krahling, E.Couacy-Hymann, C. Akoua-Koffi, N. Weber, L. Schaade, J. Fahr, M. Borchert, J.F. Gogarten, S. Calvignac-Spencer, and F.A. Leendertz. 2015. Investigating the zoonotic origin of the West African Ebola epidemic.

Tuttle, M.D. 2017. Give bats a break. Issues in Science and Technology. Spring edition.

Voigt, C.C. and T. Kingston (eds). 2016. Bats in the Anthropocene: Conservation of bats in a changing world. DOI 10,1007/978-3-319-25220-9_1.

 

 

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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.

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.

 

 

TAKE ACTION!

Choose any or all means of contact to reach out and share your opinion about this unfair bias against bats in your own words.

 

 

The Chinese Horseshoe Bat ranges from northern India to southern China. Horseshoe Bats are so named due to their horseshoe-shaped nose-leaves. They are often found in caves or cave-like locations and feed mostly on small moths. They use exceptionally high frequency echolocation to avoid detection by moths that listen for bat sounds, thereby attempting to avoid capture. This one is eating a moth in flight.

 

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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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Slate Magazine Goes to Bat for 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.

That’s why we urge you to compliment Slate on setting the record straight with the article “Humans Shouldn’t Be So Scared of Bats.” Leave a comment on the article, call (212) 445-5330 or email slateoffice@slate.com.

 

 

 

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