Bat Flash! Premature Speculation Revives Scary Headlines

08/13/2020

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.”

Millions of tourists have safely observed bats close up in Austin, Texas without harm. Bat-watchers add millions of dollars to Austin's economy each summer.

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.

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Good Intentions Can Still Leave a Bad Taste

May 29, 2020

By Merlin Tuttle and Danielle Cordani

Wrong approaches in defense of bats can be even worse than not defending them at all. Articles, such as the one published in the May 15 issue of Scientific American, “Bats are Not Our Enemies,” are meant to defend bats, but can unwittingly perpetuate needless fear and intolerance. As experience has shown, despite good intentions, nothing can threaten bats more than fear.

The article’s subheading, “The viruses they carry spill over into humans mostly when we encroach on their territory or drag them into ours—and bats do great good as well” does nothing to quell fear. Readers should be wary of praising articles that include misleading statements about disease or ones that promote separation from bats as a solution.

Without putting disease risks in perspective, simply stating the value of bats cannot counteract the belief that bats are dangerous sources of deadly diseases, capable of threatening one’s family. People will always prioritize their own well-being rather than protect animals they fear. A study, currently in press, surveyed people on their willingness to support bat conservation. Support improved significantly only when fear was eliminated.

Millions of wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats from Khao Chong Pran Cave in Thailand pass over thousands of tourists with whom local villagers do brisk business. Harvested guano sells for over $200,000 annually and the bats save local rice growers an estimated $300,000 per season. Despite decades of close contact, no disease outbreaks have occurred.

There is no documentation that Ebola, SARS, MERS, Hendra, or COVID-19 have ever been transmitted from bats to humans, though bats are often presented as the source of human infection. Such diseases are also mentioned as though they are widespread, without admitting that they (excluding COVID-19, of course) are rare or limited to specific geographic areas. For example, Americans have been warned that poop from a flying bat can give them Ebola, omitting mention that Ebola reservoirs are known only from Africa and haven’t been documented in bats even there!

Millions of tourists have safely observed spectacular bat emergences close-up in Austin, Texas for decades without harm. The bats consume up to 10 tons of insects nightly and attract millions of tourist dollars annually.

The study on which most media reports are based was clearly biased, claiming that bats harbor more viruses than other animals. It compared just 4 of the 26 orders of mammals and sampled nearly twice as many bats as all other mammals combined. Since new viruses can be found anywhere, a disproportionate search can be misleading. A far more thorough study recently concluded that bat species harbor no more viruses than other mammals or even birds, though it’s received very little media attention.

The recently promoted idea of restricting bats to protected areas is impractical and impossible to implement. As human populations expand, there is increasing need to share habitats. Even huge bat colonies can be safe neighbors, as demonstrated in cities like Austin, Texas. In fact, humans can benefit greatly. How can bats protect us from pests, pollinate crops, or generate tourist revenue if excluded from our farms and neighborhoods?

Limiting habitat destruction is critical to preserving biodiversity and ensuring the survival of many species. However, it’s imperative that we learn to live harmoniously with wildlife wherever possible. Bat survival increasingly demands that we not only protect their natural habitat but share ours as well.

For people who don’t attempt to handle or eat bats, the odds of contracting any disease from them are extremely remote. People have learned not to kick beehives or run into yards guarded by unfamiliar dogs; they can just as easily learn not to handle bats.

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Bat Flash! COVID-19 Coronavirus Leads to More Premature Scapegoating of Bats

By Merlin Tuttle
Updated 03/26/20

The source of human exposure to the COVID-19 virus, or as it was first called, Wuhan virus, according to the March 12th edition of The Conversation, has yet to be identified. However, in a rush to judgment, far too many public health officials and media outlets are focusing almost entirely on bats. This has been seen in multiple news sources, from CNN to Vice. Such speculation can be counterproductive, especially when acted on as fact.

Bats, despite their essential ecological and economic roles, rank among our planet’s most rapidly declining and endangered animals1. They have few defenders and are often mistakenly viewed as dangerous. People who fear bats are less tolerant and frequently kill them 2.

Fear is needlessly created when virologists emphasize potentially distant evolutionary relationships that shed little light on where and how a virus is actually transmitted to humans. Bats are currently believed to harbor more kinds of viruses than other mammals. But even if true, there is no credible documentation of higher risk of transmission3. Most viruses are innocuous or even beneficial 3,4.

Bats, like any living organism, are capable of harboring scary viruses, yet transmission is rare, typically only to humans who carelessly handle a bat that bites in self-defense, followed by failure to seek medical attention. Nipa virus, in India and Bangladesh, is acquired by drinking unpasteurized palm juice, eating unwashed fruit, or associating with sick pigs5.

For more than a decade, virologists have used increasingly sophisticated technology to disproportionately search for new viruses in colonial bats6. New viruses can be found by looking no farther than our own human bodies, and they’re all related at some level4! We’re 96 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees7.

Scientists at Singapore’s Bioinformatics Institute examined a key surface protein on the COVID-19 virus and found it just 79 percent genetically similar to SARS, noting that these viruses “are like comparing a dog and a cat.” 8 This flies in the face of widespread claims of similarity.

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Bat Flash! Respond to Nipah Virus Warnings

By Merlin Tuttle
12/19/19

A December 8 Reuters press release, titled “Health experts warn of emerging threat of Nipah virus,” reported on a two-day Nipah conference in Singapore; picked up by CNA Asia and making headlines across much of Asia. On December 13, CNA World further reported that some experts believe Nipah to be a pandemic threat.

 

Both articles report flying foxes to be the carriers of this “deadly disease,” failing to mention its rarity or ease of prevention and speculating it to be a high-risk source of disease outbreaks over broad areas despite an absence of  historic documentation. There was no mention of the vital importance of flying foxes as key pollinators / seed dispersers or the necessity and ease of learning to live safely with them. Such exaggerated warnings threaten bats everywhere, but none more than flying foxes that are already in alarming decline.

 

Claims that such rare viruses are poised to become the next pandemic are no more than long-shot guesses. Predicting the source of the next pandemic is extremely complicated, costly, and risks the reputations of scientists who claim such ability. Funding priorities should focus on prompt surveillance and control, not prediction.  (more…)

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WNS: Can a Cure Be Effective?

7/12/2019
By Merin Tuttle

 

Amid media announcements that the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats has spread to California, and growing public concern, The Wildlife Society announced the most recent attempt to find a cure. On July 9, an article titled “Bacteria treatment helps bats survive white-nose syndrome,” suggested progress toward a cure. However, there is no evidence that human intervention can slow the spread or cure the disease. As I’ve reported, the best available studies from the Northeast indicate that population recovery at key sites is exceeding expectations, and that a cure is unnecessary, impractical to implement, and risks unintended negative consequences. 

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Thank You For Your Voice – Editors are Listening and Bats are Benefiting

By Merlin Tuttle
6/27/19

A reminder that our members DO make a difference! Leading news media outlets are changing tack, publishing more positive, and fewer negative, stories about bats as a direct result of MTBC members’ ongoing support and actions.

Your vigilance brings misleading articles to our attention. Your support enables us to carefully document and explain issues of concern. Your personal, diplomatic comments to editors influence their further actions. Media portrayal of bats cannot be ignored. It is key to broad public understanding and support, without which conservation progress could prove impossible.

The intermediate horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus affinis) ranges from northern India to southern China. It is one of the horseshoe bats speculated, but still unproven to have caused the SARS epidemic.

Since 2014, we’ve prepared and distributed 15 blog posts and 18 Bat Flashes providing counterpoint documentation in response to exaggerated, misleading, and often completely wrong speculation attempting to link bats to rare, but scary diseases. Widely distributed publications included “Give Bats a Break” in Issues in Science and Technology (subsequently translated into French and Chinese), “Fear of Bats and its Consequences” in the Journal of Bat Research and Conservation, and “Humans Shouldn’t Be So Scared of Bats” in Slate. Additionally, the science journal, Nature, published a co-authored response in its correspondence section, titled “Don’t misrepresent link between bats and SARS.” (more…)

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A Big Step for Bats

Merlin Tuttle
1/22/19

Today’s issue of TheScientist contains another outstanding example of how MTBC is making a unique, but critical difference for bats. This article [by Merlin Tuttle] was originally submitted as an email to the editor. On January 13, I explained the harm done by biased portrayal of bats. The editor promptly requested permission to publish my communication as an op-ed. We encourage our members to share it broadly. Nothing can threaten bats more than the fear and intolerance created by misleading disease stories.

Rousette fruit bats are essential pollinators and seed dispersers. They form colonies of many thousands in caves and abandoned mines where they are extremely vulnerable to extermination. Tens of thousands were killed at a single site in Uganda by humans overreacting to fear of Marburg virus.

Speculation linking bats to scary diseases has become lucrative, both in generating research grants and media readership. As historically documented, it can have devastating impact in fostering intolerance and even massive bat eradication. It also threatens the credibility of scientists and publishers and diverts critical public health funding from far higher priorities.

Many authors and publishers of such counterproductive speculation are well intended, just misinformed. If kindly approached with sound documentation of the harm being done, they are appreciative and can be extremely helpful as we have repeatedly demonstrated.

 

 

 

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Response to Sensational Bat Rabies Stories

Every year around this time there is a spike in needlessly sensational rabies stories featuring exaggerations of truth.  We always encourage others to respond politely to editors, authors, decision makers and media personnel when they see these. Editors’ jobs depend on readership and they do aim to please. They just need to know you like or dislike an article. Responses can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate  sensational  headlines or speculation that creates needless fear of bats.”

We work hard to be a source for your personal ambassadorship of bats and wish we could respond to every article, however our resources are limited. We cannot do it alone. We hope that this post will supplement your future responses when you encounter false or exaggerated bat publicity.

 

Response to Beth Skwarecki’s story “If a Bat Was in your Bedroom, You Probably Need a Rabies Shot
By Merlin Tuttle
9/1/18

Unfortunately, this well intended story is a sensational exaggeration of truth. It is correct to say that most human rabies in America comes from bats. However, put in context, it’s just 1-2 cases per year, making it one of the rarest causes of death. By comparison, just by riding one mile in a motorized vehicle, an American exceeds his/her annual risk of rabies from any source.

Because even sick bats almost never bite, except in self-defense if handled, the risk of contracting any disease from one is exceedingly low for anyone who simply leaves them alone. In Austin, Texas, thousands of people gather nightly to observe the spectacular emergences of 1.5 million bats close-up. And in decades of this exceptionally close association, no one has been attacked or contracted a disease.

Post-exposure rabies vaccinations in the United States are outrageously overpriced, currently costing from $10,000 to $22,000 per person treated. With huge profits at stake, and our CDC heavily influenced by drug companies, promotion of exaggerated fear is not surprising. Unprovoked bites are exceedingly rare, so much so that I have yet to experience one despite close association with millions of bats worldwide for more nearly 60 years.

Human rabies cases are often diagnosed post-mortem or after the patient is incoherent. Even in cases in which parents or friends report bites, the U.S. CDC reports “no bite history” unless the patient is able to confirm. Consequently, human cases, regardless of animal origin (i.e. bat, dog, skunk or raccoon) often get reported as having no bite history. Huge misrepresentation occurs when such reports are used to disproportionately frighten people of bats.

Since 1996 the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has advised consideration of post-exposure prophylaxis for “persons potentially exposed to bats even where a history of physical contact cannot be elicited,” unless prompt diagnosis excluded rabies. Based on its independent analysis Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization, opted not to follow CDC’s recommended bat policy.  They do not advise vaccination unless there has been direct contact. For detailed documentation, see Rabies in Perspective.

Millions of tourists have watched free-tailed bat emergences from the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas over the past 35 years without anyone ever having been harmed.

 

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Merlin Tuttle Bat Flash

Bat Flash! Smithsonian Promotes Misleading Virus Hunter Claims

By Merlin Tuttle
8/3/18

 

The July 11, 2018 edition of Smithsonian.com contains another highly misleading story on virus hunters protecting us from pandemics. The story by Katherine J. Wu is titled, “A Never-Before-Seen-Virus Has Been Detected in Myanmar’s Bats.” Wu claims that to prevent the next Pandemic, we need to pinpoint it at the source. She then reports that “researchers in Myanmar have hit pay dirt with a never-before-seen virus that infects wrinkle-lipped bats—a virus in the same family as the ones that cause SARS and MERS.”

Merlin with a young Black flying fox (Pteropus alecto).

After further extolling the virtues of virus hunting, she quotes Chelsea Wood, reportedly a conservation ecologist, as saying that, “Tropical rainforests [in particular] are just cesspools of viral diversity—the highest viral diversity on the planet.” The headline and rhetoric in this article sound more like grocery store tabloid writing than something one would expect from America’s leading institution of science.

This story is a complete contradiction of a paper by epidemiologists, Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Andersen, titled “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction” which appeared in the Journal Nature on June 7, 2018. [1] Referring to virus hunting, they conclude that “given the rarity of outbreaks and the complexity of host-pathogen interactions, it is arrogant to imagine that we could use such surveys to predict and mitigate the emergence of disease.” They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention. They conclude that such approaches are an extremely costly waste of limited public health funds and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises.” (more…)

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Epidemiologists Acknowledge Virus Hunting as a Costly Waste

By Merlin Tuttle
6/15/18

Leading epidemiologists are finally acknowledging that the recently huge expenditures for virus hunting (mostly focused on bats) have little practical value in disease prevention. The June 7 issue of Nature contains a key paper titled, “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction.” In it Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Anderson combine their expertise to advocate a much-needed change of course in prevention of viral transmission from animals to humans, one that may also considerably brighten the future of bats.

They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises about disease prevention.” They “urge those working on infectious disease to focus funds and efforts on a much simpler and cost-effective way to mitigate outbreaks—proactive, real-time surveillance of human populations.”

Bats have an exceptional record of living safely with humans. But, they have been disproportionately searched, and victimized by virus hunter speculation, apparently because they are unpopular and easy to sample. This is an Angolan free-tailed bat (Mops condylurus), a species targeted for eradication following premature speculation linking it to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

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