Dear Karen and Elizabeth,
I’m replying to your responses to friends and colleagues who are deeply concerned about how Covid speculation is harming bats.
I appreciate your good intentions and understand how easy it is to be misled on the subject of bats and disease. Unlike those who promote exaggerated fear of bats, I have nothing to gain financially from sharing the truth. For decades, scaring people with misrepresented disease claims has proven extraordinarily lucrative as well as harmful to bat conservation. When I began my career in bat research, more than 60 years ago, nearly everyone in America “knew” that most bats were rabid and would attack people based on unfounded claims from public health officials. Mass eradication was common. When DDT use was made illegal, our CDC received a special exemption to distribute it for killing bats though leading scientists showed this to be highly counterproductive. We documented this in peer reviewed publications, finally convincing the EPA to ban all poisoning of bats.
But scaring people about bats continues to be so easy and lucrative as to apparently be irresistible for many in public health fields. A large part of the problem is that colonial bats are the easiest of all mammals to sample quickly in large numbers, and many people already fear them simply because we fear most what we understand least. Since few people understand bats, viruses, or genetic relationships, speculating about them in combination is especially powerful in generating sensational media headlines that sell readership and unprecedentedly large grants.
In truth, there is no credible evidence that bats harbor more diseases than other animals. However, by searching in far more bats than other animals, self-fulfilling prophecies are achieved, leading to misdirected investment in public health priorities. In fact, the odds of contracting any disease from a bat are immeasurably close to zero for anyone who simply doesn’t attempt to handle them. That truth is conveniently omitted by those who profit from public fear. I don’t deny that bats, like all animals, harbor viruses, but put in perspective, humans harbor and spread more scary diseases than bats or any other animal.
Like veterinarians, I personally am vaccinated against rabies to protect against defensive bites from the many unfamiliar animals I handle. However, I’ve never been protected against any of the so-called emerging diseases speculated to be of bat origin. And I remain healthy despite having handled hundreds of species worldwide and often been surrounded by millions at a time while working in caves.
If you would like to help both people and bats by putting risks in perspective, I would be delighted to assist you.