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Bat Disease Speculation Fails Tests of Time and Credible Science

Good science attempts to disprove, not prove, hypotheses1. Yet, for more than a decade, a growing number of virologists and epidemiologists have attempted to prove instead of test hypothesized disease threats from bats. Bats make tempting targets because they are found nearly everywhere and are easily sampled and widely feared. Furthermore, sensational speculation linking them to scary diseases has proven lucrative in selling media readership, gaining grants, and advancing careers.

Resulting bias now threatens both the survival of bats and the credibility of science. Unfortunately, growing numbers of academicians, pressured by institutional needs for overhead from large grants, are finding searches for bat disease easiest to fund. They rationalize that a little fear of bats is okay if accompanied by warnings that, despite scary disease speculation, bats are essential and should not be killed.


Unfortunately, fearful people seldom protect and often kill bats2. Transmission of disease from bats is extremely rare and only the remotest of possibilities for anyone who simply doesn’t handle them. Millions of bats live safely with people in cities from America to Australia and Africa. Despite seemingly endless disease warnings, bats have a long history of making safe and essential neighbors.

Early disease claims were based on sampling just four of 26 orders of mammals and included nearly as many bats as all other mammals combined3. A more thorough analysis has shown that bats harbor no more viruses than other vertebrates4. Disease transmission from bats is historically remarkable mostly due to its rarity.

Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) flying around their camp in Zambia. This species was the first erroneously blamed for Ebola. These bats disperse thousands of tons of seeds nightly, covering enormous expanses during seasonal migrations. The value of their ecoservices is almost unimaginable.

Failed Searches and Misleading Reports

Ebola and Covid-19 are among the diseases most frequently attributed to bats. Yet neither has been isolated from a bat. Sensational speculation linking such diseases to bats often has been based on flawed science5,6,7. Ebola has long been speculated to come from bats, and in 2014, searches for its origin focused almost exclusively on bats8,9,10. 

However, in 2016, Leendertz argued that bats were unlikely reservoirs and urged consideration of alternative hypotheses11. By 2021, it was finally discovered that Ebola could lie latent and undetected for long periods in humans12. Ebola is now known to be endemic in humans, likely accounting for continuing outbreaks that have been attributed to bats13. Antibodies found through gorilla fecal analysis suggest additional reservoirs in great apes14.

Portrait of a straw-colored fruit bat in Kenya.

Covid-19 also has been widely speculated to come from bats, though intense efforts to prove the bat-origin hypothesis have failed. Unjustified, yet scary speculation continues5. Inexplicably, relevant records on “gain of function” lab research have been withheld from investigators, leaving key questions unanswered15,16Hendra virus, first discovered in 1994, and found only in Australia, is one of the world’s rarest diseases. It is transmitted from flying foxes to horses and has killed approximately 100 horses and 4 sick-horse-exposed veterinarians17. There is an effective vaccine for horses, and times of risk are predictable18.

 

Unfortunately, this rare and easily preventable disease has made world headlines, while far greater threats from other sources have remained largely ignored. For example, rapidly growing danger from drug-resistant bacteria, largely created by consumption of meat produced on factory farms, has been known for more than two decades. But they remain relatively unreported19,20. We are warned that bats are among the “world’s most dangerous animals”21. However, as early as 2013, at least two million Americans were already being infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, causing 23,000 deaths22. By comparison, the annual American death rate from all bat-transmitted diseases combined is just 1-2 (bitten in self-defense while attempting to handle a grounded bat without seeking vaccination)!

Even in cities like Abidjan in Ivory Coast, straw-colored fruit bats are intensely hunted for food. And yet, there is no evidence that the people who eat them contract diseases as a result.
Hundreds of thousands of straw-colored fruit bats beginning their evening departure from a city park in Ivory Coast, Africa. Despite such large numbers having lived in close association with humans throughout recorded history, they have not caused disease outbreaks.

How You Can Help Share the Truth

We deeply appreciate members, colleagues, and friends who help us stay abreast of exaggerated claims. Even better, directly contact publishers and funders that foster irresponsible fear of bats. Finally, ask organizations you support for their help. We work hard to provide up-to-date resources and are always happy to aid your efforts. Simply saying that bats are essential and in need of protection isn’t enough. In truth, they have one of our planet’s finest records of not spreading disease. The scariest claims come from those who profit most from fear. They may love bats, but in truth, they love fear-generated profits even more.

References 

  1. Platt JR. Strong inference. Science. 1964;146(3642):347-353. doi:10.1126/SCIENCE.146.3642.347/ASSET/A42C5824-891C-4580-B7EB-D2E70FC3DE7F/ASSETS/SCIENCE.146.3642.347.FP.PNG
  2. Tuttle MD. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Journal of Bat Research & Conservation. 2017;10(1). doi:10.14709/BarbJ.10.1.2017.09
  3. Anthony SJ, Johnson CK, Greig DJ, et al. Global patterns in coronavirus diversity. Virus Evol. 2017;3(1). doi:10.1093/ve/vex012
  4. Mollentze N, Streicker DG. Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Published online April 13, 2020. doi:10.1073/pnas.1919176117
  5. Weinberg M, Yovel Y. Revising the paradigm: Are bats really pathogen reservoirs or do they possess an efficient immune system? iScience. 2022;25(8). doi:10.1016/J.ISCI.2022.104782
  6. Wenzel J. Origins of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 are often poorly explored in leading publications. Cladistics. 2020;36(4):374-379. doi:10.1111/CLA.12425
  7. Puechmaille SJ, Ar Gouilh M, Dechmann D, et al. Misconceptions and misinformation about bats and viruses. International Journal of Infectious Diseases. 2021;105:606-607. doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2021.02.097
  8. Vidal J. Ebola: research team says migrating fruit bats responsible for outbreak. The Observer. Published 2014. Accessed December 8, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/23/ebola-outbreak-blamed-on-fruit-bats-africa
  9. Roberts M. First Ebola boy likely infected by playing in bat tree. BBC News. Published 2014. Accessed December 9, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-30632453
  10. Quammen D. Insect-Eating Bat May Be Origin of Ebola Outbreak, New Study Suggests. National Geographic. Published 2014. Accessed December 9, 2022. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/141230-ebola-virus-origin-insect-bats-meliandou-reservoir-host
  11.  Leendertz SAJ, Gogarten JF, Düx A, Calvignac-Spencer S, Leendertz FH. Assessing the Evidence Supporting Fruit Bats as the Primary Reservoirs for Ebola Viruses. Ecohealth. 2016;13(1):18-25. doi:10.1007/S10393-015-1053-0
  12.  Kupferschmidt K. Ebola virus may lurk in survivors for many years. Science (1979). 2021;371(6535):1188. doi:10.1126/SCIENCE.371.6535.1188/ASSET/F09B6A53-24CC-491F-92DD-03A5349C37D2/ASSETS/SCIENCE.371.6535.1188.FP.PNG
  13.  Fairhead J, Leach M, Millimouno D. Spillover or endemic? Reconsidering the origins of Ebola virus disease outbreaks by revisiting local accounts in light of new evidence from Guinea. BMJ Glob Health. 2021;6(4). doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2021-005783
  14.  Reed PE, Mulangu S, Cameron KN, et al. A New Approach for Monitoring Ebolavirus in Wild Great Apes. PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 2014;8(9):e3143. doi:10.1371/JOURNAL.PNTD.0003143
  15.  Eban K. Inside the Virus-Hunting Nonprofit at the Center of the Lab-Leak Controversy. Vanity Fair. Published March 31, 2022. Accessed April 3, 2022. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2022/03/the-virus-hunting-nonprofit-at-the-center-of-the-lab-leak-controversy
  16.  Wade N. The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan? – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Published 2021. Accessed January 23, 2022. https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/the-origin-of-covid-did-people-or-nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/
  17.  Hendra virus infection. World Health Organization. Published 2022. Accessed December 8, 2022. https://www.who.int/health-topics/hendra-virus-disease#tab=tab_1
  18.  For veterinarians and plant scientists. National Pest and Disease Outbreaks. Published 2022. Accessed December 8, 2022. https://www.outbreak.gov.au/for-vets-and-scientists
  19.  Moyer MW. The Looming Threat of Factory Superbugs. Sci Am. 2016;315(6):70-79. doi:10.1038/SCIENTIFICAMERICAN1216-70
  20.  Jones N. Unraveling the Causes of the Pandemic, and Preparing for the Next. Yale 360. Published 2022. Accessed December 9, 2022. https://e360.yale.edu/features/david-quammen-covid-pandemic-origins-wildlife
  21.  Siegel R. Why Killer Viruses And Infectious Disease Outbreaks Are On The Rise. National Public Radio. Published 2017. Accessed December 8, 2022. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/511227050
  22.  Antibiotic Resistance The Global Threat. CDC Global Health. Published 2022. Accessed December 10, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/globalhealth/infographics/antibiotic-resistance/antibiotic_resistance_global_threat.htm#_edn4

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Michael Lazari Karapetian

Michael Lazari Karapetian has over twenty years of investment management experience. He has a degree in business management, is a certified NBA agent, and gained early experience as a money manager for the Bank of America where he established model portfolios for high-net-worth clients. In 2003 he founded Lazari Capital Management, Inc. and Lazari Asset Management, Inc.  He is President and CIO of both and manages over a half a billion in assets. In his personal time he champions philanthropic causes. He serves on the board of Moravian College and has a strong affinity for wildlife, both funding and volunteering on behalf of endangered species.