Believe it or not, bats have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with humans. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, they harbor no more viruses than other animals.1 In fact, there is no historical support for claims that close association with bats increases risks of disease outbreaks in humans or other animals.2
Those who warn of potential pandemics from bats cannot explain why none have been traced to the millions of humans who hunt and eat bats, to those who spend countless hours extracting bat guano fertilizer from caves, to cavers or bat researchers who frequent bat caves, or to people who share cities with hundreds of thousands of bats.
Like veterinarians, bat researchers often handle unfamiliar animals and are sometimes bitten. Thus, we are vaccinated against rabies. But hundreds of us, over decades of time, have safely handled bats without protection against any of the so-called “emerging diseases” now speculated to pose dire threats. Historical precedent soundly contradicts scary speculation. Those who promote fear of bats to gain larger grants or media profits risk the credibility of science.
The five-part series, The Bat Lands, released by Reuters on May 16, 2023, exemplifies the discrepancy between historic fact and current speculation. In the first sentence, we learn that bats carry tens of thousands of viruses. Nothing unique–so do we! Next, we are warned that bats can spread viruses in their feces, urine, and saliva and that their pathogens represent an epidemiological minefield. They also pose special threats due to their ability to fly long distances. Aren’t these facts equally true of humans?
Ebola and SARS are often reported to be of bat origin, though neither virus has ever been isolated from a bat despite countless attempts. The remaining three mentioned, Marburg, Hendra, and Nipa, are rare and easily avoided. Covid-19 is said to be related to coronaviruses found in horseshoe bats but again has never actually been found in a bat. Coronaviruses are widespread in birds and mammals, and even cause the common cold in humans. Asserting relatedness to imply an origin in bats is meaningless. Countless coronavirus relatives remain to be discovered in additional animals not yet searched.
Ebola is incorrectly blamed on bats throughout the series. However, it is now known to reside undetectably for years in humans and may even persist across generations. Thus, outbreaks ascribed to spillovers from animals may be resurgences from humans.2
It is said that “The more bats there are, the more chances the viruses they carry have to mutate and become more infectious.” Should we who live in Austin, Texas be concerned despite decades of benefit from protecting up to 1.5 million free-tailed bats from our now famous Congress Avenue Bridge? I for one, haven’t lost faith in historical precedent, though I do fear for the credibility of science!
Our combined voices can make a difference. We invite you to politely share your opinion in your own words with the editors. You may find our resources, Give Bats a Break and Good Intentions Can Still Leave a Bad Taste, additionally helpful in composing your personal reply and discussing these topics with others. Editors do take notice if they hear from enough people.
Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate misleading speculation that perpetuates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article for you to have an impact. It’s numbers that count and bats need all of you! Tell a friend about bat values and how they can help.
1. Email Reuters – Article information to include with your comments:
- Article Series & Release Date: The five-part series, The Bat Lands, released by Reuters on May 16, 2023
- Authors: Ryan McNeill, Helen Reid, Allison Martell, Cooper Inveen, Deborah J. Nelson, Matthew Green, and Michael Ovaska
2. Call Reuters
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- Middle East +35 777788558
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- Mollentze, N. & Streicker, D. G. Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A (2020) doi:10.1073/pnas.1919176117.
- 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 6, (2021).
UPDATE -- Reuters Response & MTBC's Reply
Response received from Brian P. Moss, an ethics and standards editor at Reuters:
Your comments were forwarded to me, an ethics and standards editor at Reuters. I appreciate your concerns, and with my colleagues reviewed our series of articles on bats and disease in light of your complaint.
The Bat Lands states clearly and repeatedly that bats are a critical part of nature and that the risk of disease outbreaks is not due to bats but human behavior. Part 5 of the series focuses on scientists explaining how humans can live safely with bats, and includes calls for increased funding to understand bats and protection of their habitats.
The research and our stories are consistent with the position that Bat Conservation International took in 2016 after the West African Ebola epidemic, again in 2017 and reiterated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization, founded by Merlin Tuttle, acknowledged the challenges of preventing zoonotic spillover events linked to bats and endorsed a One Health approach “to protect human health and conserve the world’s bats.”
Reuters takes seriously its commitment to accuracy, fairness and freedom from bias.
Thanks for writing and sharing your concerns.
Ethics and Standards
Merlin Tuttle’s Reply to Brian P. Moss:
Colleagues are informing me that my former organization, Bat Conservation International and I are referred to as justifying the content of Reuters‘ May 16 series The Bat Lands.
I find it embarrassing to be held accountable for the opinions of an organization I founded, but have not been involved with since I left in 2009. We substantially disagree on a variety of disease-related issues. In my experience people who fear bats seldom protect and often kill them (Tuttle 2017). For a well-documented assessment of a decade of unsubstantiated disease claims against bats, please read my resource, Bat Disease Speculation Fails Tests of Time and Credible Science (Tuttle 2022).
I agree that the Reuters series does say that bats are highly beneficial and should not be killed, however nothing can threaten bats more than fear (Tuttle and Cordani 2020). The series begins by linking bats to “risk of a new pandemic,” and throughout repeatedly links them to “killer viruses.” We hear far more about the potential seriousness of disease from bats than about benefits. And many of the claims of terrible possibilities are pure conjecture.
The Bat Lands series repeatedly singles bats out as exceptionally dangerous, based almost entirely on speculation. Risks that are equally or even more true for humans and many other animals are cited in a manner that leaves readers believing they are unique to bats. Making the following claims against bats alone suggests bias. Your series states that bats: 1) carry tens of thousands of viruses, 2) scatter body wastes containing viruses, 3) could trigger the next pandemic, 4) represent an epidemiological mine field in 113 countries, 5) are leading reservoirs for 72,000 viruses, 6) can fly long distances carrying viruses, 6) harbor viruses related to COVID-19, 7) serve as original sources of deadly Ebola, Marburg, SARS, Hendra and Nipah viruses, and 8) are responsible for making more than 9 million square kilometers of our planet ripe for viral spillover. Bats are also falsely blamed for some of the worst health crises in recent decades, such as SARS, Ebola, and COVID-19, none of which has ever been isolated from a bat despite incredibly intense searches.
Furthermore, claims that bats harbor more viruses than other animals were based on exceptionally poor research that examined only four of 26 orders of mammals and sampled nearly as many bats as all other orders combined (Anthony et al. 2017). Since most viruses remain undiscovered, disproportionate examination of bats has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Mollentze and Streicker (2020) sampled all orders, they found viral loads equal in all.
Countless attempts have failed to link Ebola to bats. Long ago, Leendertz et al. (2016) provided convincing arguments for broadening the search to a wider range of possibilities. Ebola now appears able to survive, undetectable, for many years in humans (Kaikupferschmidt 2021), suggesting that it may be endemic in humans over long time periods rather than resulting from wildlife spillovers (Fairhead et al. 2021). Could it be that the expenditure of billions of dollars, nearly universally focused on bats, may have been largely misspent due to biased attempts to prove rather than test bat reservoir hypotheses?
Out of concern for the future of bats and the credibility of science, I hope you will consider providing much improved balance in future discussions of bats.
Founder and Executive Director, Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation
Research Fellow, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin