Comments on World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Report

The World Health Organization’s recent report on COVID-19 speculates a bat origin. However, its findings are seriously flawed and questioned by the Biden administration according to the Wall Street Journal. Former CDC Director, Robert Redfield, in his CNN interview, still believes it escaped from a lab in China. The origin clearly remains unresolved.

A review of scientific literature reveals that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has not been found in bats, and there are no reports of transmission from a bat to a human.

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USA Today Bat Flash Follow-up

Many thanks to all who responded to last week’s Bat FlashWe were copied on emails and are delighted to see your politely and positively framed responses. 

MTBC’s objective is to encourage the authors, editors and decision makers to refocus attention to balanced reporting of scientifically sound facts. We offer our resources and, with the help of our members, these responses have often led to collaborations, op-eds or follow up publications that put the truth in perspective. Misunderstandings are common and often shared by well intended writers. Unfortunately speculation gets shared as fact, so much so that it becomes difficult to see the truth.

Many of you received identical replies from the authors, as shown below. Merlin responded on February 1, 2021 to both USA Today authors, Karen Weintraub and Elizabeth Weise, as follows:

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.

Best wishes,

Merlin

Merlin received the response pictured below, like many of you did, and responded on February 6, 2021, as follows:

Dear Elizabeth,

There is evidence of a horseshoe bat role in the early evolution of a SARS-like coronavirus. Because bats are an ancient group of mammals that comprise a fifth of all species, it is not surprising to find ancestral strains of modern viruses in them. Nevertheless, the two viruses (RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2) diverged 40-70years ago and are no more similar than we are to chimpanzees. The fact remains, the origin of COVID-19 is still a mystery, and failure to find an intermediate ancestor for SARS-CoV-2 is not a basis for concluding that bat-to-human transmission has occurred. Many alternative animal sources simply remain uninvestigated, and leading virologists have emphasized the need for a broader search beyond bats. Finding the true source of COVID-19 transmission to humans, not distant viral relatives, is key to future prevention.

It is important to understand how zoonotic diseases are transmitted to humans. But effective protection demands unbiased investigation. The disproportionate focus on bats is an unfortunate waste of limited resources that threatens to reverse decades of bat conservation. There is a massive under-sampling of other species. It is even possible that the virus now causing COVID-19 evolved its deadly characteristics after arrival in humans. Much more sampling of possible hosts will be required before we can conclude where it came from.

There is a long history of public health exaggeration focused on bats, and its harm to bats is undeniable. People who fear animals seldom tolerate and often kill them regardless of warnings that they are beneficial and shouldn’t be killed. I have personally documented cases in which hundreds of thousands of bats have been burned in their caves, or trapped and left to starve when their caves were sealed by needlessly fearful humans. The attached photo shows just a few of the 250,000 trapped in a single location I visited. There are also well-documented incidents in several countries due to sensational media speculation of a bat origin for COVID-19. 

Those who profit from human fear of bats rarely, if ever, mention that the odds of contracting any disease from a bat are extremely remote for people who simply don’t handle them. Without ending fear, good intentions can do more harm than good.

I urge an end to media speculation that misrepresents facts, threatening the survival of bats and diminishing confidence in science.

Best wishes,

Merlin

Picture1
This is the photo Merlin attached to his email, mentioned above. It shows the remains of just a few of the 250,000 bats trapped in a single location, where they were sealed inside their roosting tunnel by fearful humans.
Merlin then received the response pictured below, like many of you did, on February 10, 2021:

Because we’ve already provided clear documentation of expert disagreement to the author’s statements we did not respond to this email. 

It seems that Karen and Elizabeth, while well-intended, are hopelessly committed and uninterested in hearing facts that don’t align with their reporting. Yes, it’s a fact bats harbor viruses, just like humans and every other animal on the planet, but they don’t harbor more than other species.

We hope for better luck next time. Some authors and editors are willing to consider opposing science, and by sharing this exchange we can encourage polite discussion and shed light on the need for balanced reporting, especially when it comes to bats. Thanks again for speaking up for bats!

If you haven’t shared your opinion with USA Today yet, it’s never too late to use your voice on behalf of bats. Bats need friends now more than ever. We hope our resources can help you be the best bat ambassador you can be, so keep sharing the truth about bats!

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Bat Flash! Where Did COVID-19 Really Come From?

01/28/21

By Merlin Tuttle

USA Today’s January 17 story, Where did Covid-19 come from? leads with the following statement “The coronavirus that conquered the world came from a thumb-sized bat tucked inside a remote Chinese cave. Of this much, scientists are convinced.”

Deep in the story, they quote virologist John Connor at Boston University, saying ‘It looks like it’s a bat-derived virus, and there’s a big question mark after that.’ Fellow virologist, Charles Chiu, an expert in viral genomics at the University of California—San Francisco, is additionally quoted as saying ‘It may also have emerged from any setting in which people come into contact with animals, including farms, pets or zoos.’

Clearly, all scientists are not convinced that this virus came from bats, not even those interviewed for this story. The disproportionate focus on bats as the source of the COVID-19 pandemic is based on poorly supported speculation that harms conservation efforts worldwide.

Intermediate Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus affinis)

One of the most cited studies accuses bats of hosting more viruses than other mammals. Yet, the authors of this study surveyed twice as many bats as all other mammals combined. More inclusive research suggests that bats do not harbor more viruses than other animals.

New viruses can be found wherever we look, so it is not surprising to find more in the animals that are predominately searched. The claim that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, shares 96% of its genetic material with a coronavirus found in a horseshoe bat is meaningless. We ourselves are 96% genetically similar to chimpanzees which we easily recognize as non-human.

Current biases threaten the survival of bats that have undisputed value and are already in alarming decline. They also harm science credibility and misdirect the search for zoonotic reservoirs by focusing disproportionately on bats. Despite relentless searching and endless speculation, there is no documentation that SARS-CoV-2, SARS, MERS, or Ebola viruses have been found in, or transmitted from a bat to a human.

As noted by Yong-Zhen Zhang and Edward Holmes, it is critical that coronavirus surveillance should include animals other than bats. Blaming bats based on one-sided searches is premature and misleading.

 TAKE ACTION!

Our combined voices can make a difference. We invite you to politely share your opinion in your own words with the editors. You may find our resources, Give Bats a Break and Good Intentions Can Still Leave a Bad Taste, additionally helpful in composing your personal reply and discussing these topics with others. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate misleading speculation that perpetuates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article for you to have an impact.

It’s numbers that count and bats need all of you! Tell a friend about bat values and how they can help.

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Bat Flash! NatGeo’s “Virus Hunters” Spreads Groundless Claims About Bats

11/2/2020

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. 2020 study, concluding that bats harbor no more viruses than other animals, has been largely ignored.

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.

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.

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Bat Flash! Misleading Article Harms Bats and Public Health

7/17/2020

By Merlin Tuttle

A disappointing number of authors and publishers are spreading the false narrative that bats are exceptionally high-risk sources of deadly viruses. The July 12 edition of The Washington Post contained an article titled, “Why do bats have so many viruses?” The author, Rachel Ehrenberg, was apparently unaware of the most recent analysis of viral risks.

We urge Rachel and other Washington Post journalists to review Mollentze and Streiker’s April 28, 2020 comprehensive analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Their paper titled, “Viral zoonotic risk is homogeneous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts” concluded that bats are no more likely than other animals to host disease.

Virus hunters have focused search efforts disproportionately on bats, apparently because bats are exceptionally easy to sample in large numbers and have few defenders. Referring to the Covid-19 outbreak, Zhang and Holmes concluded that surveillance of coronaviruses in animals other than bats is critical to protecting against future outbreaks.

Sensational speculation, exaggerating bat association with scary viruses, has led to a serious bias that impedes our understanding of viral pandemics and creates a perfect storm of media publicity. This feeds into our broader academic crisis—the misallocation of large grants for splashy, attention-getting “research” that promotes career advancement over high-quality, reproducible scientific investigation. Such bias threatens to misdirect limited public health resources and halt, or even reverse, decades of conservation progress.

It’s time publishers, authors, researchers, and decision-makers let go of the premise that bats are uniquely dangerous sources of disease and end biased sampling and unsupported speculation. Instead, we need to identify true sources of human infection and insist on accurate reporting that leads to actual prevention.

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Bat Flash! CNN Misses the Mark

Response to CNN Program “Bats—The Mystery Behind COVID-19″

6/16/2020
By Merlin Tuttle

I applaud Anderson Cooper for his attempt to improve public perceptions of bats. His program included numerous reasons why we should appreciate and protect bats. Nevertheless, producers failed to alleviate needless fear by omission of key facts and addition of misleading narratives. Such approaches unfortunately solidify needless fear and can’t be countered by simply sharing bat values. For bats to be tolerated, fear must be eliminated.

Many researchers were reported to “believe” that COVID-19 came from bats. Bats were claimed to be reservoirs for the standard litany of deadliest diseases, including Ebola, though the source of Ebola and COVID-19 remains a mystery. Bats were clearly stated to harbor more zoonotic viruses than other animals, ignoring recent research refuting such claims. Furthermore, scientists shown studying bats wore sealed suits and full-face respirator protection, sending a strong visual message of danger.

A wonderful array of positive things were said about bats, and their essential ecosystem and economic roles were emphasized. However, without putting disease risks in perspective, advising viewers to respect bats while also warning against living near them is high-risk for negative consequences.  

Human encroachment into bat habitats was blamed for pandemic disease threats. However, it was not explained how expanding human populations could reduce pandemic risks simply by ending logging or invasion of new bat habitats. Nor was it explained how bats, restricted to their protected areas apart from where we live and grow crops, could possibly continue to shield us from mosquitoes in our yards or pests that attack our crops. 

Missing elements were conspicuous by their absence. There was no mention of the fact that millions of bats share cities with humans in America, Africa, Asia, and Australia without associated disease outbreaks. Nor was there mention of how easily disease transmission from bats can be avoided—in most of the world by simply not handling or eating bats. Even more troubling is the fact that program producers were well aware of these omitted facts.

On May 7 and 8, production staff conducted nearly two hours of phone interviews with me and Teresa Nichta and received abundant documentation from us. We even offered outstanding video footage showing the popularity of bat-watching tourism in Austin, Texas and planned to schedule filming at various sites in Texas upon their request. They seemed quite excited about our help, promising to get back to us in a few days with final plans. Then, they simply disappeared. We can’t avoid wondering who nixed the production staff’s enthusiasm for sharing such a key demonstration of bats making safe and invaluable neighbors. I suspect that Anderson Cooper will be surprised if ever he learns of this.

The bottom line — Frightened humans seldom tolerate and often kill bats. Programs that promote fear, regardless of good intentions, threaten bats and their essential services as valued neighbors.  

Please remember, there is no credible science documenting that bats are responsible for the transmission of COVID-19, Ebola, SARS, or MERS, to humans. Anyone implying such transmission is speculating. Be vigilant in your media consumption and sharing! 

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Bat Flash! COVID-19 Coronavirus Leads to More Premature Scapegoating of Bats

By Merlin Tuttle
Updated 03/26/20

The source of human exposure to the COVID-19 virus, or as it was first called, Wuhan virus, according to the March 12th edition of The Conversation, has yet to be identified. However, in a rush to judgment, far too many public health officials and media outlets are focusing almost entirely on bats. This has been seen in multiple news sources, from CNN to Vice. Such speculation can be counterproductive, especially when acted on as fact.

Bats, despite their essential ecological and economic roles, rank among our planet’s most rapidly declining and endangered animals1. They have few defenders and are often mistakenly viewed as dangerous. People who fear bats are less tolerant and frequently kill them 2.

Fear is needlessly created when virologists emphasize potentially distant evolutionary relationships that shed little light on where and how a virus is actually transmitted to humans. Bats are currently believed to harbor more kinds of viruses than other mammals. But even if true, there is no credible documentation of higher risk of transmission3. Most viruses are innocuous or even beneficial 3,4.

Bats, like any living organism, are capable of harboring scary viruses, yet transmission is rare, typically only to humans who carelessly handle a bat that bites in self-defense, followed by failure to seek medical attention. Nipa virus, in India and Bangladesh, is acquired by drinking unpasteurized palm juice, eating unwashed fruit, or associating with sick pigs5.

For more than a decade, virologists have used increasingly sophisticated technology to disproportionately search for new viruses in colonial bats6. New viruses can be found by looking no farther than our own human bodies, and they’re all related at some level4! We’re 96 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees7.

Scientists at Singapore’s Bioinformatics Institute examined a key surface protein on the COVID-19 virus and found it just 79 percent genetically similar to SARS, noting that these viruses “are like comparing a dog and a cat.” 8 This flies in the face of widespread claims of similarity.

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Thank You For Your Voice – Editors are Listening and Bats are Benefiting

By Merlin Tuttle
6/27/19

A reminder that our members DO make a difference! Leading news media outlets are changing tack, publishing more positive, and fewer negative, stories about bats as a direct result of MTBC members’ ongoing support and actions.

Your vigilance brings misleading articles to our attention. Your support enables us to carefully document and explain issues of concern. Your personal, diplomatic comments to editors influence their further actions. Media portrayal of bats cannot be ignored. It is key to broad public understanding and support, without which conservation progress could prove impossible.

The intermediate horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus affinis) ranges from northern India to southern China. It is one of the horseshoe bats speculated, but still unproven to have caused the SARS epidemic.

Since 2014, we’ve prepared and distributed 15 blog posts and 18 Bat Flashes providing counterpoint documentation in response to exaggerated, misleading, and often completely wrong speculation attempting to link bats to rare, but scary diseases. Widely distributed publications included “Give Bats a Break” in Issues in Science and Technology (subsequently translated into French and Chinese), “Fear of Bats and its Consequences” in the Journal of Bat Research and Conservation, and “Humans Shouldn’t Be So Scared of Bats” in Slate. Additionally, the science journal, Nature, published a co-authored response in its correspondence section, titled “Don’t misrepresent link between bats and SARS.” (more…)

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Merlin Tuttle Bat Flash

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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Scientists Unite in Protest of Unfounded SARS Claims

1/22/18
By Merlin Tuttle

The intermediate horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus affinis) ranges from northern India to southern China. Horseshoe Bats are so named due to their horseshoe-shaped nose-leaves. This is one of the species prematurely speculated to be the source for SARS.

Good science tests but does not attempt to “prove” hypotheses. Numerous attempts have been made to demonstrate a link between the origin of SARS and bats, and literally thousands of publications have reported it as documented fact.  The December 1 issue of Nature, included yet another example, this one titled “Bat cave solves mystery of deadly SARS virus—and suggests new outbreak could occur.” The article reports, “After a detective hunt across China, researchers chasing the origin of the deadly SARS virus have finally found their smoking gun.”

The January 16 issue of Nature, carries a rebuttal titled, “Don’t misrepresent link between bats and SARS.” Authors point out that the “smoking gun” metaphor is sensationalist and unjustified, potentially leading to culling and bat roost destruction.

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