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.
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.
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 unanswered15,16. Hendra 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)!
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.
- 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
- Tuttle MD. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Journal of Bat Research & Conservation. 2017;10(1). doi:10.14709/BarbJ.10.1.2017.09
- Anthony SJ, Johnson CK, Greig DJ, et al. Global patterns in coronavirus diversity. Virus Evol. 2017;3(1). doi:10.1093/ve/vex012
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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/
- Hendra virus infection. World Health Organization. Published 2022. Accessed December 8, 2022. https://www.who.int/health-topics/hendra-virus-disease#tab=tab_1
- 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
- Moyer MW. The Looming Threat of Factory Superbugs. Sci Am. 2016;315(6):70-79. doi:10.1038/SCIENTIFICAMERICAN1216-70
- 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
- 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
- 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