The Last Week Tonight with John Oliver February 15th episode shared misguided speculations about bats. Here is Merlin’s public letter to John Oliver. We don’t have his email address, so we’re counting on you to help get his attention. No shade, John, we understand the topic is muddy. We simply want the opportunity to set the record straight!
Contact information and action steps are listed below. You can still help!
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.
By Merlin Tuttle
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.
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…)
By Merlin Tuttle
Just as we enter a period of exceptional need for reliable science to protect and restore a healthy planet, too many traditionally prestigious science journals and institutions are rewarding bad science. (1) (2) “Scientists are supposed to relentlessly probe the fabric of reality with the most rigorous and skeptical of methods.” (3) Yet traditionally credible journals like Nature and Science are increasingly publishing sensational speculation, particularly studies attempting to link bats to deadly diseases. (4)
Growing numbers are attempting to prove rather than test hypotheses, sometimes based on a sample of just one viral fragment from a single bat. (5) Kai Kupferschmidt’s article titled, “This bat species may be the source of the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa,” exemplifies the problem. It is based on a highly questionable sample from one bat, though it appeared in the online news site of the journal Science (January 24, 2019).
As is typical in such stories, it begins with a scary question that will grab readership and media attention. That Science title is followed by a emboldened quote stating that “This is an important new lead and it should be followed up extensively.”
Later quotes, less emphasized, admit that only a small viral fragment was found, and that it may have come from an infected insect eaten by the bat. In other words, this bat may have simply eaten an Ebola-carrying insect, completely changing the bat’s role from implied source to controller. Perhaps if virologists weren’t so focused on proving that Ebola comes from bats, they might have found the true source by now.
A growing number of leading virologists are warning that virus hunting, promoted by such articles, is a costly waste. The unsupportable public health promises being made are likely to demean the credibility of science. (6) Scientists need incentives for finding the right answer rather than for simply getting published. (1)
The New York Times ran a similar account of the same story, authored by Denise Grady. It was titled “Deadly Ebola Virus Is Found in Liberian Bat, Researchers Say.” The author admits “It feels premature scientifically” but fails to admit that the small viral fragment may have come from an infected insect eaten by the bat, making the bat a potential aid in limiting the spread of Ebola. They too, belatedly and ineffectively, admonish not to kill bats.
Sensational and premature reports like these are clearly irresponsible and risk great harm to both scientific credibility and the environment. (more…)
Today’s issue of TheScientist contains another outstanding example of how MTBC is making a unique, but critical difference for bats. This article [by Merlin Tuttle] was originally submitted as an email to the editor. On January 13, I explained the harm done by biased portrayal of bats. The editor promptly requested permission to publish my communication as an op-ed. We encourage our members to share it broadly. Nothing can threaten bats more than the fear and intolerance created by misleading disease stories.
Speculation linking bats to scary diseases has become lucrative, both in generating research grants and media readership. As historically documented, it can have devastating impact in fostering intolerance and even massive bat eradication. It also threatens the credibility of scientists and publishers and diverts critical public health funding from far higher priorities.
Many authors and publishers of such counterproductive speculation are well intended, just misinformed. If kindly approached with sound documentation of the harm being done, they are appreciative and can be extremely helpful as we have repeatedly demonstrated.
By Merlin Tuttle
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.
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).
A Terrifying Time for Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
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.
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
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
By Merlin Tuttle
Virologists are still doggedly pursuing the search for an Ebola reservoir in bats, as reported in the story titled Hunting for Ebola among the Bats of the Congo in the June 1, 2017 issue of Science (Kupferschmudt 2017), apparently attempting to ignore mounting evidence pointing elsewhere. The record of unsubstantiated speculation, attributing Ebola to bats is long and becoming an embarrassment to good science.
By 2014, researchers had discovered that 10% of gorillas in Central Africa have antibodies to Ebola, demonstrating that exposure or infection is not uniformly lethal as previously reported (Reed et al. 2014). Because great apes were said to be highly susceptible, virologists had insisted they couldn’t serve as reservoirs. Instead they pointed to bats.
Response to Smithsonian story, “Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?”
Lorraine Boissoneault’s story, Can Saving Animals Prevent the Next Deadly Pandemic?, is clearly well intended. However, when it comes to fruit bats and Ebola it is based on outdated speculation that threatens serious harm to a group of mammals that is already in alarming decline. For a summary of current knowledge of bats versus Ebola and other rare, but so-called emerging diseases, and their speculated association with bats, I refer you to my article in the current edition of Issues in Science and Technology, titled “Give Bats a Break.”
Diseases that are millions of years old, but that are just now being discovered due to their rarity, are being referred to as “emerging” as an apparent public relations ploy to make them sound more dangerous. And speculating associations with bats makes them even more scary, since many people already fear bats. This has proven unprecedentedly effective in gaining hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to support so-called virus hunters, who must continue speculating about potentially dire threats from bat diseases to keep their grants flowing.
Bats historically have one of the world’s finest records of living safely with humans, first in caves and thatched huts, then in log cabins.
Sensational National Public Radio Story Threatens Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
Unfortunately, the normally objective and reliable NPR, in its broadcast interview titled, Why Killer Viruses Are On The Rise, has joined in spreading irresponsibly sensational fear of bats. The interview with a “virus hunter” is set in a Bornean rainforest. In the preamble, the announcer notes that, “It’s where deadly viruses hide out, waiting their chance to leap into a person and then spread around the world.”
At a time when bats and rainforests are both in alarming decline, and in desperate need of protection, the program goes on to portray them in the scariest of terms. The reporter notes that rainforests “have lots of crazy animals” that “have lots of crazy viruses” and explains that what the virus hunter “really wants is to catch a bat.”
When the first bat is caught it is described as cute, but the reporter quickly points out that, “bats are arguably one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They triggered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the pandemic of killer pneumonia back in 2003, that was called SARS, and they’re behind one of the viruses scientists think could cause the next big one, Nipah.” This is unproven speculation reported as fact. But it gets even worse.