USA Today Bat Flash Follow-up

Many thanks to all who responded to last week’s Bat FlashWe were copied on emails and are delighted to see your politely and positively framed responses. 

MTBC’s objective is to encourage the authors, editors and decision makers to refocus attention to balanced reporting of scientifically sound facts. We offer our resources and, with the help of our members, these responses have often led to collaborations, op-eds or follow up publications that put the truth in perspective. Misunderstandings are common and often shared by well intended writers. Unfortunately speculation gets shared as fact, so much so that it becomes difficult to see the truth.

Many of you received identical replies from the authors, as shown below. Merlin responded on February 1, 2021 to both USA Today authors, Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise, as follows:

Dear Karen and Elizabeth,

I’m replying to your responses to friends and colleagues who are deeply concerned about how Covid speculation is harming bats.

I appreciate your good intentions and understand how easy it is to be misled on the subject of bats and disease. Unlike those who promote exaggerated fear of bats, I have nothing to gain financially from sharing the truth. For decades, scaring people with misrepresented disease claims has proven extraordinarily lucrative as well as harmful to bat conservation. When I began my career in bat research, more than 60 years ago, nearly everyone in America “knew” that most bats were rabid and would attack people based on unfounded claims from public health officials. Mass eradication was common. When DDT use was made illegal, our CDC received a special exemption to distribute it for killing bats though leading scientists showed this to be highly counterproductive. We documented this in peer reviewed publications, finally convincing the EPA to ban all poisoning of bats.

But scaring people about bats continues to be so easy and lucrative as to apparently be irresistible for many in public health fields. A large part of the problem is that colonial bats are the easiest of all mammals to sample quickly in large numbers, and many people already fear them simply because we fear most what we understand least. Since few people understand bats, viruses, or genetic relationships, speculating about them in combination is especially powerful in generating sensational media headlines that sell readership and unprecedentedly large grants.

In truth, there is no credible evidence that bats harbor more diseases than other animals. However, by searching in far more bats than other animals, self-fulfilling prophecies are achieved, leading to misdirected investment in public health priorities. In fact, the odds of contracting any disease from a bat are immeasurably close to zero for anyone who simply doesn’t attempt to handle them. That truth is conveniently omitted by those who profit from public fear. I don’t deny that bats, like all animals, harbor viruses, but put in perspective, humans harbor and spread more scary diseases than bats or any other animal.

Like veterinarians, I personally am vaccinated against rabies to protect against defensive bites from the many unfamiliar animals I handle. However, I’ve never been protected against any of the so-called emerging diseases speculated to be of bat origin. And I remain healthy despite having handled hundreds of species worldwide and often been surrounded by millions at a time while working in caves.

If you would like to help both people and bats by putting risks in perspective, I would be delighted to assist you.

Best wishes,

Merlin

Merlin received the response pictured below, like many of you did, and responded on February 6, 2021, as follows:

Dear Elizabeth,

There is evidence of a horseshoe bat role in the early evolution of a SARS-like coronavirus. Because bats are an ancient group of mammals that comprise a fifth of all species, it is not surprising to find ancestral strains of modern viruses in them. Nevertheless, the two viruses (RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2) diverged 40-70years ago and are no more similar than we are to chimpanzees. The fact remains, the origin of COVID-19 is still a mystery, and failure to find an intermediate ancestor for SARS-CoV-2 is not a basis for concluding that bat-to-human transmission has occurred. Many alternative animal sources simply remain uninvestigated, and leading virologists have emphasized the need for a broader search beyond bats. Finding the true source of COVID-19 transmission to humans, not distant viral relatives, is key to future prevention.

It is important to understand how zoonotic diseases are transmitted to humans. But effective protection demands unbiased investigation. The disproportionate focus on bats is an unfortunate waste of limited resources that threatens to reverse decades of bat conservation. There is a massive under-sampling of other species. It is even possible that the virus now causing COVID-19 evolved its deadly characteristics after arrival in humans. Much more sampling of possible hosts will be required before we can conclude where it came from.

There is a long history of public health exaggeration focused on bats, and its harm to bats is undeniable. People who fear animals seldom tolerate and often kill them regardless of warnings that they are beneficial and shouldn’t be killed. I have personally documented cases in which hundreds of thousands of bats have been burned in their caves, or trapped and left to starve when their caves were sealed by needlessly fearful humans. The attached photo shows just a few of the 250,000 trapped in a single location I visited. There are also well-documented incidents in several countries due to sensational media speculation of a bat origin for COVID-19. 

Those who profit from human fear of bats rarely, if ever, mention that the odds of contracting any disease from a bat are extremely remote for people who simply don’t handle them. Without ending fear, good intentions can do more harm than good.

I urge an end to media speculation that misrepresents facts, threatening the survival of bats and diminishing confidence in science.

Best wishes,

Merlin

Picture1
This is the photo Merlin attached to his email, mentioned above. It shows the remains of just a few of the 250,000 bats trapped in a single location, where they were sealed inside their roosting tunnel by fearful humans.
Merlin then received the response pictured below, like many of you did, on February 10, 2021:

Because we’ve already provided clear documentation of expert disagreement to the author’s statements we did not respond to this email. 

It seems that Karen and Elizabeth, while well-intended, are hopelessly committed and uninterested in hearing facts that don’t align with their reporting. Yes, it’s a fact bats harbor viruses, just like humans and every other animal on the planet, but they don’t harbor more than other species.

We hope for better luck next time. Some authors and editors are willing to consider opposing science, and by sharing this exchange we can encourage polite discussion and shed light on the need for balanced reporting, especially when it comes to bats. Thanks again for speaking up for bats!

If you haven’t shared your opinion with USA Today yet, it’s never too late to use your voice on behalf of bats. Bats need friends now more than ever. We hope our resources can help you be the best bat ambassador you can be, so keep sharing the truth about bats!