Bat Flash! Response to Exaggerated Pandemic Threats from Nipah Virus

Author Correspondence Update
12/26/18

12/19/18 Steven Bedard response

Dear Mr. Tuttle,

“Thank you so much for your concern, and for reading the bioGraphic story about Nipah virus. I really appreciate it. I assure you that I am a strong proponent of bats and the tremendously important ecological roles they play. I also think that bats are simply amazing creatures in their many forms and functions. (When you have time, please take a look at bioGraphic‘s other bat stories as evidence of that appreciation: Glimmers in the DarkBattling DiseaseBat Ballet, and Agave Whisperers.)”

He went on to explain it is never his intention to vilify or advocate killing of bats and hopes he is being clear.

 

12/20/18 Merlin response

Dear Steven,

“I do not doubt your concern for bats or your good intentions. As I’ve commented, most of your article was just fine. My complaint lies in labeling bats to be the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals. Our background experiences are apparently strikingly different. Mine regarding the impact of public fear have been summarized recently. I’d be delighted to learn more about whatever experiences led you to your apparently differing concerns. However, I’d much prefer to simply share our perspectives over the phone.”

 

12/20/18 Steven Bedard response

Dear Merlin,

“Thank you for your reply. I look forward to the opportunity to speak with you. I first heard of your research when I was an undergrad studying zoology and ecology at Colorado State in the late 80’s, so it would be an honor to “meet” by phone.”

He further notes that he extensively interviewed disease experts and explains, “You will see in the article that I chose my words very carefully. I did not say that ‘bats are the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals.’ Humans hold that dubious distinction. What I wrote is that, ‘Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.’ That statement is most certainly true, according to my sources, as well as published research such as this Nature paper published in June 2017.

He also noted, “Some of your followers have expressed concern that if people in Bangladesh understand where the virus is coming from that they will begin to persecute bats.”

[Merlin’s thoughts—That is a serious misunderstanding. Scientists and conservationists have a responsibility to inform the public of disease sources, locations, and how to avoid them. We also must condemn sensational speculation and exaggeration, either of which can seriously harm both public health and bats.]

 

12/21/18 Merlin response

Dear Steven,

As per your suggestion, I’ve read your recent stories from bioGraphic and congratulate you on some very fine promotion of bat values. In fact, your “Glimmers in the Dark” article is the best I’ve seen on WNS. Given your clear concern for bats, I’m especially looking forward to speaking with you by phone when you return early in the New Year. When ready, simply suggest a time and phone number, and I’ll be happy to call.

Attached photo

We’ve likely had rather different experiences on the impact of exaggerated disease fears. Unlike you, I’ve had the misfortune of repeatedly seeing the results first hand.

During my early research in Tennessee, I met cave owners who burned many thousands of endangered gray bats by lighting kerosene in their roosts due to exaggerated rabies warnings. In Mexico, I took the attached photo of a few of the estimated 250,000 skeletons of insect-eating bats we found on reopening a roost where a fearful owner had sealed the bats inside. And, while photographing bats for my 2014 National Geographic article, I found a major bat cave recently sealed (with the bats inside) due to disease fears in a Cuban national park. In my experience, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear. In fact, the free-tailed bat colony speculated to have been the source of the 2014 Ebola outbreak was burned in its roost.

Seeing how well intended you are, I hope you will read my 2017 report on fear-motivated bat killing and its impact on conservation. I am quite familiar with the Nature paper reporting that bats harbor a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than any other mammal group and look forward to discussing it with you.

[Note that Merlin has rebutted the aforementioned Nature article, read his response HERE.]

 

Original Response
By Merlin Tuttle
12/19/18

Steven Bedard’s article, “The Reservoir,” in the December 12 issue of bioGraphic contains many important points, and the accompanying photography by A.M. Ahad is outstanding. Nevertheless, the subtitle is exaggerated speculation. The claim that a bat-borne virus in Bangladesh is poised to become the next pandemic is no more than a long-shot guess.

 

Neither historic precedent nor credible science support the statement that “Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.” Bats have an outstanding record of not transmitting disease to humans, though they are poorly understood and widely feared. They are the easiest mammals to quickly sample, so virus hunters disproportionately focus on bats, of course finding more viruses in them because that is where they are looking!

An adult male Greater short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx) robbing sweet coconut palm nectar water from a sugar maker’s collecting can in a coconut palm in Thailand. Flowering stalks are tied together and cut so that nectar-producing sap can be harvested. It is later cooked to make a delicious sugar. When not stealing sugar water, these bats are outstanding seed dispersers and pollinators.

 

Unfortunately, speculating possible linkages between bats and rare, but scary viruses has created a perfect storm of grant-getting success and media coverage. Resulting biases can impede public health progress and lead to public intolerance of bats that are ecologically and economically essential. (1) (2)

 

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,not prediction. (3)

 

Nipah, like other so-called “emerging viruses,” is ancient. As reported in Bedard’s article, it likely has been infecting humans for hundreds of years, unrecognized due to its rarity. Nevertheless, as the human population expands beyond sustainability, poverty, stress, and the conditions favorable to pandemics will make major outbreaks virtually inevitable, as stated. But it’s anybody’s guess where they will come from. Focusing too narrowly on bats may be impeding progress. Unsustainable growth in human populations is the real problem, one which few are willing to address.

Education regarding the risks of drinking raw palm juice is commendable. Perhaps the next step should be family planning. Nature has two remedies for overpopulation, pandemics and famine. Studies of rare diseases in bats will prevent neither.

 

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to bioGraphic editors and author to 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 exaggerated 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!

 

Bibliography

  1. Tuttle, Merlin. In Defense of Bats: Issues in Science and Technology www.merlintuttle.org. [Online] 2017. https://www.merlintuttle.org/resources/publication-defense-bats/.
  2. Fear of Bats and its Consequences. Tuttle, Merlin. 1, s.l. : Journal of Bat Research & Conservation, 2017, Vol. 10.
  3. Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction. Edward C. Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian G. Andersen. s.l. : Nature, June 7, 2018.

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Bat Flash! Action Needed for Durian Pollinators at Risk

The durian is considered the king of fruits throughout Southeast Asia, but it can’t be produced, even in orchards, without bats to pollinate its night-blooming flowers. This important crop could be lost without better appreciation of the key contributions of bats and their habitat needs.

It’s time to give these bats a voice. Rimba’s media statement: Deforestation for Durian Plantations Poses Serious Long-term Risks to Industry’s Productivity and Profitability calls others to action on behalf of durian pollinators. The Star recently published an article, Durian farmers pay the price in the end, highlighting Rimba’s work, reaching more than 7 million unique visitors.

Malay Mail published another supporting article, Weighing in on bats and durians, which boasts over 3 million unique visitors not including the printed version.

The Rimba news release emphasizes the serious impact of deforestation-driven durian expansion to all relevant parties. They call on the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, the Department of Agriculture, the wider durian industry, and individual durian farmers to “think long-term and pursue good agricultural practices for growing durian that is sustainable, contributes to healthy ecosystems, and provides a future for the Malaysian durian industry and Malaysian durian lovers.”

The overall objective of their plan is to promote coordinated action worldwide to safeguard wild and managed pollinators and promote the sustainable use of pollination services, which are vital to both ecosystems and agriculture. We are delighted to see Rimba’s efforts on behalf of bats and the economies they support getting this well deserved attention. Let’s use our voices to amplify the message!

 

TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to The Star and Malay Mail editors to thank them for sharing this important reporting in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I greatly appreciate your support of bats and protection of sustainable durian production.” 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!

 

A cave nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea) pollinating durian flowers. Durian fruits sell for billions of dollars annually in SE Asia, but flowers must be pollinated by bats in order to set fruit. Cave nectar bats and their larger flying fox relatives are its primary pollinators. These bats traditionally formed large colonies in caves but are in alarming decline in most areas, often overharvested for human consumption or killed during careless limestone extraction. This, combined with deforestation, poses a direct threat to durian production, as well as to a variety of other important products.

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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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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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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.

(more…)

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Bat Flash! Respond to Reuters News Release Blaming Bats for New Ebola Outbreak

By Merlin Tuttle
5/15/18

 

I share Benoit Nyemba and Fiston Mahamba’s concern regarding a potential resurgence of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as Reuters News reported on May 8. Nevertheless, continuing to blame bats as the source is likely to reverse conservation progress essential to  ecosystem health (Lopez-Baucells et al. 2018) and delay successful Ebola prevention. Understanding the true source is essential.

A male straw-colored fruit bat (Eidolon helvum). This is the species that was first erroneously blamed for infecting the two-year-old toddler identified as the index case that triggered the 2013-2014 Ebola outbreak. In the end no one could explain how a bat that never enters buildings and has a three-foot wingspan could have contacted a toddler without anyone knowing about it!

Bats can indeed transmit deadly diseases like rabies and Nipah to humans, though transmission is exceedingly rare and easily avoided. In the case of Ebola, bats have been too easily assumed guilty. A wide variety have been tested at outbreak locations. But, “Ebolavirus has yet to be isolated from bats, and no direct evidence links bats to Ebolavirus infection in humans.” (Spengler et al. 2016) Virologists still know “nothing about where it comes from and how it causes outbreaks.” (Kupferschmidt 2017).

(more…)

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Bat Flash! Encouragement for Positivity in Cambodia

This powerful article in Southeast Asia Globe, by Claire Baker-Munton, on the value of artificial bat roosts in Southeast Asia deserves much praise. With the help of Merlin’s photos, this article clearly promotes a better understanding of bats and their values. At a time when so many media headlines are attempting to grab readership by speculating potential linkage of bats to scary diseases, positive stories like this are crucial. In reality, as Claire points out, Cambodians have found bats to be highly valued neighbors.

TAKE ACTION!

Choose any or all means of contact to reach out with your praise and encouragement on behalf of bats.

 

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Bat Flash! Respond to Misleading Attempt to Encourage Fear of Bats 12/1/17

By Merlin Tuttle
12/1/17

The November 23, 2017 issue of THE CONVERSATION lures readers with an important sounding, bat-friendly title, “Can bats help humans survive the next pandemic?” However, two-thirds of the article is devoted to promoting fear instead of progress and is based on questionable sources. This is particularly disturbing given the publication’s stated objective—“Fight for Truth in Journalism.”

This story is a simple repeat of close to a decade of often exaggerated speculation attempting to link viruses found in bats to transmission of scary but relatively rare ones like SARS and MERS to humans. Documented transmission of any disease from bats to humans remains exceedingly rare. And no one has successfully shown transmission of SARS or MERS from bats to other mammals. Dromedary camels are now well known to have been the source of MERS in humans for decades, likely longer.

Villagers harvesting bat guano from Rakang Cave in Thailand. For as long as anyone can remember no unusual illness has occured, one of many similar contradictions that virologists forecasting world pandemics from bats cannot explain.

(more…)

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Bat Flash! Praise to Mongabay for Timely Defense of Bats

By Merlin Tuttle
9/5/17

This summer saw the worst avalanche of grossly exaggerated disease speculation ever launched against bats. While seemingly countless publications world-wide needlessly frightened millions of readers, Mongabay journalist, John Cannon, investigated and bravely countered the tide in his article, “Bats and viruses: Beating back a bad reputation,” published August 29.

Mongabay is one of the world’s leading environmental websites. It reaches 28 million readers in nine languages annually, making its defense of bats especially helpful at a time when bats are facing so much scary misinformation. We’ve listed actions you can take to share your thanks at the end of this post.

Lesser long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) are primary pollinators of agave plants essential to annual production of tequila and mescal worth billions of dollars to the Mexican economy. But thousands at a time have been burned in their caves due to unfounded fear.

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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.

(more…)

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