By Merlin Tuttle
A study published July 28th in Nature Microbiology titled, “Evolutionary origins of the SARS-CoV-2 lineage responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic,” implies a direct bat origin at a time when analyses remain woefully incomplete. Nevertheless, news media continue to sensationalize inconclusive speculation in a manner that needlessly demonizes bats and circumvents the scientific process:
BBC NEWS—“COVID-19: Infectious coronaviruses circulating in bats for decades”
Popular Science—“The virus that causes COVID-19 has been silently brewing in bats for decades”
The Philadelphia Inquirer—“The next coronavirus may already be circulating in bats, study suggests”
Live Science—”Ancestors of coronavirus have been hiding out in bats for decades, ready to infect humans.”
None of these articles mentions either the exceptional value of bats or how rare it is to contract any disease from a bat. Readers need rational advice, not more cause for panic!
Failure to find an intermediate ancestor for SARS-CoV-2 is not a basis for concluding that bat-to-human transmission has occurred. 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.
The implied contention that bats are uniquely dangerous hosts of deadly coronaviruses is premature and inconsistent with current evidence. There is evidence of a horseshoe bat role in the early evolution of a SARS-like coronavirus. Nevertheless, Wenzel agrees, “common knowledge regarding SARS viruses is apparently not well supported.” There is a critical need to survey coronaviruses, far beyond bats. Finding the true source of COVID-19 transmission to humans is key to future prevention.
No patient zero has been found, leaving the route of transmission to humans a mystery. It is time to halt media headlines that misrepresent facts, risking the survival of already threatened bats, and diminishing confidence in science.