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.

 

One thought on “Bat Flash! Smithsonian Promotes Misleading Virus Hunter Claims

  1. Thanks for the Bat Flash! I’ve responded and encouraged others to do so, as well. I may not have been terribly polite– I’m frustrated by this nonsense– but I’ll let you all know if I get a response.

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