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.”

New viruses can be found wherever we look. Many are innocuous or even beneficial, [2]  including some that are closely related to deadly ones. [4] The number of viruses found in bats is not necessarily indicative of risk. [5] Nevertheless, promoters of virus hunting make low risks seem imminent and extreme. And since few people understand bats or viruses, the combination is ideal for manipulation used to justify outrageously large misappropriation of funds. [1]

Historically, bats have an outstanding track record. They rarely transmit disease to humans, even where millions closely associate with people in cities. [3] Yet virus hunters are creating a self-perpetuating cycle of fear that threatens their future. That people seldom protect, and often kill animals they fear, especially in the case of bats, is historically well documented.

The Smithsonian.com story follows a familiar virus hunter pattern of promotion. It begins with a scary, headline-grabbing title, followed by speculation of potentially great danger to be prevented, and appears to be confirmed by reported-to-be-independent colleagues. At the end, they add an apparent disclaimer. This one is typical, stating that viral discovery studies can lead to demonizing animals, noting that, “Just because they carry nasty diseases doesn’t mean we should kill these species.”

It’s time to end costly virus hunts that squander public health resources and needlessly create fear of already declining, but ecologically essential bats. As our nation’s highest institution of science, when the Smithsonian publishes misinformation it is particularly damaging.

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to the staff at Smithsonian.com and politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate speculation that creates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article in order for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!

 

This series of photos show me radio-tracking a bat to its roost in a giant, hollow tree in the Smithsonian’s Barro Colorado Island rainforest, than squeezing inside to photograph the colony. If rainforests, and the bats that live there were truly “cesspools of dangerous viruses,” I should have died a horrible death long ago!

Little big-eared bat (Micronycteris megalotis) and Seba’s short-tailed fruit bat (Carollia perspicillata) roosting in the hollow tree.

 

 

References

[1] E. Holmes, A. Rambout and K. Andersen, “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction,” Nature, no. 558, pp. 180-182, 2018.
[2] J. Enriquez and S. Gullans , ““Viruses, the Roadrunners of Evolution”,” in Evolving Ourselves, New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2015, pp. 99-103.
[3] M. Tuttle, “Fear of Bats and its Consequences,” Journal of Bat Research and Conservation, vol. 10, no. 1, 2017.
[4] M. Miranda and N. Miranda, “Reston ebolavirus in humans and animals in the Philippines: A review.,” Journal of Infectous Diseases, vol. 204, no. 3, pp. S757-S760, 2011.
[5] K. Kupferschmidt, “Bats may be carrying the next SARS pandemic,” Science, 2013.

 

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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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Thanks to Mongabay for Balanced Nipah Reporting

By Merlin Tuttle
5/31/18

We greatly appreciate Mongabay for its handling of the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, India. Its story, “Nipah infection in Kerala: Don’t blame the bats alone; improve public health,” appeared on May 30, authored by Haritha John and Gopikrishna Warrier. Needless alarm was avoided by balanced reporting. As so often is the case, the rarest threats make the biggest news. Fortunately, in this instance, the news was accurate, so did not cause needless panic.

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A Terrifying Time for Bats

A Terrifying Time for Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
7/2/17

The past month has seen a virtual explosion of premature speculation presented as though it were now proven fact, much of it traceable to a single article titled, “Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses,” that appeared in the June 14, 2017 issue of Nature. We’ve already issued a Bat Flash alert responding to this article, and to predecessors, all apparently part of a single cleverly planned campaign.

An adult male Straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum) from Kenya. This is the species first blamed for the “index case” of Ebola in the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. The species was soon exonerated. In fact, it is so resistant to Ebola that it is an unlikely source. Recent studies suggest a source other than bats.

Sensational speculation has become widely cited as fact1, with spin-off damage that will be exceedingly difficult to reverse. All who truly care about bats have cause to be deeply concerned.

Due to scary speculation attempting to link the SARS outbreak of 2002 to bats, bats have recently become central in the search for viruses2.  Thus, rapid advances in viral detection alone may have caused major bias. Also, the number of viruses found in bats is not necessarily indicative of risk.2 Many viruses are innocuous or even beneficial,3 including some that are closely related to deadly ones.4 Finally, the paper in question is based on models, and models are notorious for mistaken conclusions, regardless of the amount of data analyzed.5

A far more meaningful analysis should have considered the historic rarity of viral spillover from bats to humans. Many media stories now claim bats to be the primary source of so-called “emerging infectious diseases” like Ebola, though most of these speculations remain unproven.6- 7

Thai women collecting guano in Rakang Cave. These women spend countless thousands of hours sweeping up the guano and bagging it while being pooped on by hundreds of thousands of fruit- and insect-eating bats high overhead and report no ill effects.

Proponents of such speculation still cannot explain why hundreds of bat biologists, millions of people who eat bats, and the millions more who share cities with huge bat colonies are no less healthy than others. They can’t explain why bats artificially infected with Ebola haven’t become contagious or why virologists haven’t even been able to find live virus in the thousands of bats examined. Certainly, like all other mammals, bats must be capable of harboring at least a few dangerous viruses. Nevertheless, bats still have one of our planet’s finest records of living safely with humans.1

Children begin helping collect guano almost as soon as they can walk.

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Bat Flash! Nature Sensationalizes Bat Coronaviruses

By Merlin Tuttle
6/13/17

The June 12, 2017 story by Amy Maxmen, titled “Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronaviruses,” published in Nature, continues the needlessly sensational presentation of bats as exceptionally dangerous animals. By simple insertion of the words “global” and “deadly” in the title, it implies bats worldwide to be a serious menace to human health.

The article begins by stating that “Bats are the major animal reservoir for coronaviruses worldwide….” In the reported study, nearly twice as many bats as rodents, shrews, and primates combined were examined, not surprising. The emphasis on easily captured bats, likely centered on colonial species, is an approach that appears to have become the norm. And it’s impossible to know the extent of resulting bias.

A Chinese horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus sinicus) from Hong Kong. It has been suggested that a coronavirus found in this species is the direct ancestor of the virus that causes SARS. Nevertheless, despite seemingly endless speculation, no experiment has ever shown these, or any other bats, to be capable of transmitting a coronavirus to primates or other animals.

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Bat Flash! Respond to Sensationalized Bat Attack Report

By Merlin Tuttle
6/12/17

Bats are currently facing the most harmful media campaign seen in more than 30 years. The latest outrage is an article titled “Bat attacks on humans increasing due to urbanization and deforestation,” published in the British online newspaper, The Independent, on June 3, 2017.

Once again, bats are plagued with a rash of sensational bat-attack and bat-disease stories, promoted by clever, but unscrupulous persons who know better. The motivation remains the same—greedy competition for public health funding. As noted by Mexico’s leading bat biologist and conservationist, Dr. Rodrigo Medellin, “unsupported statements and partial truths have been cleverly interwoven to present a picture that bats are the most dangerous, filthy, pathogen-harboring organisms on earth.” So-called virus hunters are linking already feared bats with deadly, but rare diseases, misleading governments to invest billions of dollars in projects of questionable value in saving human lives (USCDC 2015).

A Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) feeding on the tail of a sleeping cow in Costa Rica.

The current article in The Independent, is typical, first the scary headline that leaves a lasting impression on readers, despite later qualifiers, most of which go unread. The subtitle says, “Diseases in bats have been around for a long time and historically have not been a problem. Now, there is cause for concern.”

 

 

Those promoting this international campaign of fear are clever wordsmithers. They know just enough about bats and diseases to almost imperceptibly distort the truth, scaring people about potential, but unlikely events. Extremely low risks are made to seem imminent and possibly disastrous. And since neither bats nor viruses are well understood, they are ideal victims for such manipulation.

The article claims bats have been attacking humans in increasing numbers because their natural habitats are being destroyed through deforestation. This is a commonly propagated myth in recent scare stories. It appears to be an attempt to look like the writer isn’t anti-bat, but is simply attempting to be helpful. Bats nearly everywhere are in decline, and a growing proportion of the human population now lives in cities where there is less, rather than more likelihood of contact with bats. A veterinary college professor is quoted as saying that expanding cities are causing increasing contact—just the opposite of reality. The professor sounds like a reliable source, though he likely has no personal experience with bats.

Common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) are found only in Latin America. They appear to have been relatively rare prior to the arrival of modern humans who brought livestock that these bats now feed on. Though they have become a problem for ranchers, vampire saliva is reported to contain a “treasure trove” of molecules that one day may be used to save human lives. They are highly social animals that adopt orphans and share meals with less fortunate colony members.

It is reported that more than 40 people were bitten by vampires in just three months, with one death from rabies. But that’s in all of northeastern Brazil. This is likely one of the rarest causes of mortality that could have been reported for such a large area. Far more deaths likely occurred from bicycle accidents or dog attacks, though no one is likely to advocate ridding the area of bicycles or dogs!

The story verifies our worst concerns, reporting that authorities are “trying to control the bats, poisoning them and removing their roosting sites.” Highly beneficial species form the largest, most conspicuous colonies so they are the ones most easily found, becoming innocent victims of mass killing. In the current article, a doctor stresses that “Brazilian authorities must take the threat seriously.” And an accompanying photo shows an insect-eating bat, looking exceptionally vicious because it is snarling in self-defense.

Not until the next to last paragraph is it admitted that “Bats in the UK do not pose a threat to the human population.” This nearly universally repeated approach gives authors a disclaimer, but it appears deliberately located where it is least likely to be noticed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TAKE ACTION!

Choose any or all means of contact to reach out and share your opinion in your own words.

 

A Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus). The strange nose is a heat-sensing organ, enabling it to scan for capillaries concentrated near the skin surface of its prey.

 

Bibliography 

Annonymous. 2017. FY 2015-2019 Ebola response funding. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

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Behind the Latest Ebola Story in Science

By Merlin Tuttle
6/7/17

Virologists are still doggedly pursuing the search for an Ebola reservoir in bats, as reported in the story titled Hunting for Ebola among the Bats of the Congo in the June 1, 2017 issue of Science (Kupferschmudt 2017), apparently attempting to ignore mounting evidence pointing elsewhere. The record of unsubstantiated speculation, attributing Ebola to bats is long and becoming an embarrassment to good science.

By 2014, researchers had discovered that 10% of gorillas in Central Africa have antibodies to Ebola, demonstrating that exposure or infection is not uniformly lethal as previously reported (Reed et al. 2014). Because great apes were said to be highly susceptible, virologists had insisted they couldn’t serve as reservoirs. Instead they pointed to bats.

A hammer-headed bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) eating a rose apple (Eugenia jambos) in Ivory Coast. This species is now the central focus of the Ebola reservoir search reported in Science. It is a key seed disperser in areas in need of reforestation.

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Slate Magazine Goes to Bat for Bats

Countering a huge, international disease scare campaign against bats is extremely challenging, but thanks to the loyal support of our uniquely dedicated members the truth is being heard, as seen in this week’s issue of Slate magazine. We are unfortunately still the only conservation organization brave enough to counter this international campaign backed by hundreds of millions of dollars. Promoters of fear are increasingly portraying themselves as bat conservationists attempting to help bats. They say bats are valuable and shouldn’t be killed, but their grossly exaggerated disease warnings remain deadly, no less than back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s when nearly everyone in America was led to believe that most bats were rabid. The impact on conservation efforts was devastating. States with the most indefensibly large rabies budgets led the propaganda, aided by unscrupulous pest control companies. However, states where health departments intensely publicized bats as dangerous achieved no reduction in human rabies compared to states that simply advised evaluation of all animal bites.

Too few of us today remember that, after Rachael Carson got DDT outlawed for general use in America, our CDC insisted on obtaining a special exemption so it could continue to use DDT to kill bats in buildings. Even now, our CDC has a policy that Canada and the State of Oregon have rejected, based on independent scientific evaluation.

A large proportion of remaining bats have had to take refuge in buildings​, having lost their traditional roosts in caves and old growth forests​. Yet I’m seeing a gradual return to the days of big bat business for exterminators. Now, they try to look like conservationists by including mention of how beneficial bats are and ​advising that they should not be killed while simultaneously attempting to scare people into hiring their eviction services, which less conspicuously still kills bats. With all the devastation already wrought by WNS in the U.S., the timing for intolerance couldn’t be worse.

That’s why we urge you to compliment Slate on setting the record straight with the article “Humans Shouldn’t Be So Scared of Bats.” Leave a comment on the article, call (212) 445-5330 or email slateoffice@slate.com.

 

 

 

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Response to Inappropriate Coverage of Bats and Ebola in Smithsonian Publication

Response to Smithsonian story, “Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?”
Merlin Tuttle
5/9/17

 

Lorraine Boissoneault’s story, Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?, is clearly well intended. However, when it comes to fruit bats and Ebola it is based on outdated speculation that threatens serious harm to a group of mammals that is already in alarming decline. For a summary of current knowledge of bats versus Ebola and other rare, but so-called emerging diseases, and their speculated association with bats, I refer you to my article in the current edition of Issues in Science and Technology, titled “Give Bats a Break.”

Diseases that are millions of years old, but that are just now being discovered due to their rarity, are being referred to as “emerging” as an apparent public relations ploy to make them sound more dangerous. And speculating associations with bats makes them even more scary, since many people already fear bats. This has proven unprecedentedly effective in gaining hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to support so-called virus hunters, who must continue speculating about potentially dire threats from bat diseases to keep their grants flowing.

Bats historically have one of the world’s finest records of living safely with humans, first in caves and thatched huts, then in log cabins.

Hundreds of thousands of Straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) beginning their evening departure from a city park in Ivory Coast, Africa. Cities often provide the only homes safe from commercial hunters who sell them for people to eat. Despite such large numbers having lived in close association with humans throughout recorded history, they have not caused disease outbreaks. Their remarkable safety record casts grave doubt on recent speculation of their being dangerous carriers of disease.

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New Publication in Defense of Bats

Read Merlin’s article, Give Bats a Break, in the Spring 2017 edition of Issues in Science and Technology. This report is based on Merlin’s review of thousands of scientific papers and popular media stories. And it is the first to expose how sensational speculation is fostering bad science in a self-perpetuating cycle of misdirected public health funding that threatens the future of bats. This is an issue that we cannot ignore.

 

Chinese translation available HERE!

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