I am responding to the article titled, “A Secret Weapon in Preventing the Next Pandemic: Fruit Bats,” which appeared in the August 2, 2023 issue of Scientific American. The title appears to promote a better appreciation of bats. However, the next sentence mistakenly claims that bats worldwide are primary transmitters of viruses deadly to humans.
This flawed conclusion reached a worldwide audience in 2017 through a study that reported more viruses in bats than in other mammals. It examined nearly twice as many bats as all other animals combined1, ignoring the fact that new viruses can be found wherever we look. Nevertheless, it received sensational media coverage worldwide. In contrast, a far more thorough study concluded that bats did not harbor more viruses than other animals2, but continues to be mostly ignored. As evidenced by the recent Scientific American article, the scary, sensationalist study continues to dominate public perception of bats.
In fact, bats historically have one of our planet’s finest records of not transmitting disease to people. Even sick ones rarely become aggressive. In more than 60 years of studying and photographing hundreds of species of bats worldwide, I have never been attacked or contracted a disease from a bat. Like veterinarians who handle, and occasionally are bitten by unfamiliar animals, I have been vaccinated against rabies. However, I have never been protected against any of the so-called “emerging” diseases, and like hundreds of other bat researchers, have never contracted one.
Those who promote fear of diseases from bats cannot explain the absence of outbreaks among bat researchers, people who extract bat guano from caves, or the millions of people who eat bats — to say nothing of those who share cities with hundreds of thousands of bats from America to Australia and Africa without harm. For anyone who simply doesn’t attempt to handle bats, the odds of contracting a disease from one are extremely remote.
Nevertheless, in the age of pandemics, exaggerating risks from bats has become a profitable distraction from far more important priorities. This threatens public health and the credibility of science3 and leads to intolerance of ecologically and economically essential bats that are already in alarming decline. Give bats a break.
Vastly disproportionate searches in bats have failed to document them as uniquely dangerous sources of “emerging” viral diseases. For example, countless attempts to link bats to Ebola have failed. Evidence now strongly supports an origin from great apes and other primates4. Many outbreaks in humans, that were formerly blamed on bats, now appear to have resulted from asymptomatic infections in humans where Ebola has a long history of endemism4. Bats have been victims of a viral witch hunt that has delayed progress5, threatening public health and the credibility of science.
Anthony, S. J., Johnson, C. K., Greig, D. J., Kramer, S., Che, X., Wells, H., Hicks, A. L., Joly, D. O., Wolfe, N. D., Daszak, P., Karesh, W., Lipkin, W. I., Morse, S. S., Mazet, J. A. K., & Goldstein, T. (2017). Global patterns in coronavirus diversity. Virus Evolution, 3(1). https://doi.org/10.1093/ve/vex012
Mollentze, N., & Streicker, D. G. (2020). Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1919176117
Holmes, E. C., Rambaut, A., & Andersen, K. G. (2018). Pandemics: Spend on surveillance, not prediction. Nature, 558(7709), 180–182. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05373-w
Fairhead, J., Leach, M., & Millimouno, D. (2021). Spillover or endemic? Reconsidering the origins of Ebola virus disease outbreaks by revisiting local accounts in light of new evidence from Guinea. BMJ Global Health, 6(4). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2021-005783
Leendertz, S. A. J., Gogarten, J. F., Düx, A., Calvignac-Spencer, S., & Leendertz, F. H. (2016). Assessing the Evidence Supporting Fruit Bats as the Primary Reservoirs for Ebola Viruses. Ecohealth, 13(1), 18–25. https://doi.org/10.1007/S10393-015-1053-0