By Merlin Tuttle
I viewed the National Geographic documentary series titled, “Virus Hunters,” with substantial disappointment. Warnings of growing reliance on bush meat and industrial farming were justified. However, coverage of wildlife too often exaggerated risks from bats.
Bats are exceptionally easy to trap in large numbers, have few defenders, and are easily misunderstood. This makes them prime targets for scary speculation that is exceptionally lucrative in gaining media readership and unprecedentedly large grants. And unfortunately, the opinions of leading virologists who doubt that virus hunters can predict or prevent pandemics were left unmentioned.
The 2017 study that reported more viruses in bats than in other mammals sampled nearly twice as many bats as all other mammalian orders combined. Since most viruses have yet to be discovered, new ones can be found wherever we look. And because bats are an ancient group of mammals, it is not surprising that they sometimes host ancestors of modern species. A 2020 study, concluding that bats harbor no more viruses than other animals, has been largely ignored.
Documented transmission of any disease from a bat to a human is exceedingly rare, and the risk is near zero for anyone who simply does not handle them. Hundreds of thousands of bats live in city parks across Africa. Yet there are no verified cases of Ebola transmission, despite huge efforts to find such an association. In fact, despite repeated assertions, there are no documented cases of Ebola, MERS, or SARS-CoV-2 viruses ever having been found in a bat, much less transmitted from a bat to a human. In truth, bats have one of the world’s finest records of living safely with humans. For example, in Austin, Texas countless thousands of visitors have safely viewed the spectacular emergences of 1.5 million free-tailed bats for decades without a single incident of disease transmission.
I have safely studied bats for more than 60 years, including publishing five articles in their defense in National Geographic. It is sad indeed to see bat survival threatened due to the same, traditionally respected, organization spreading groundless claims that bats can defecate deadly viruses by simply flying overhead. People seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear, and none are more vulnerable than bats. Please, in your future coverage of Virus Hunters, put bat risks and benefits in perspective. The irresponsible spreading of falsehoods needs to stop.