No one knows for sure where the 2019 novel coronavirus, the new disease that has infected more than 80,000 people and killed around 2,700 worldwide since it cropped up in China in late December, first came from. But researchers and media outlets alike are increasingly pointing their fingers at bats.
And thinking about what that will mean for the winged creatures makes Merlin Tuttle, an Austin, Texas-based biologist who has pioneered bat research and conservation since 1959, shudder with dread.
Thanks to a mix of folklore and modern horror tropes, bats don’t have a great reputation in many communities. But over the past 20 years especially, they’ve increasingly been linked to the origins of epidemics of hendra, ebola, MERS, nipah, rabies, SARS, and a number of other diseases. “And every time there’s a big scare” like that, Tuttle explained to The Daily Beast, “you get people going out and killing bats,” or even governments advocating wholesale culling or relocation initiatives. Right now on social media, according to Leslie Sturges of the Mount Solon, Virginia-based bat-conservation group Save Lucy, “We are hearing suggestions as far-fetched as: Kill all the bats to protect human health.”
All of which is, of course, horrifying to the dozens of bat-conservation groups trying to halt the global decline of bat populations.
Most bat-lovers acknowledge that, thanks to a few quirks of biology and society, the creatures carry a staggering number of diseases that don’t do them much harm but can really rip through humans if and when they make the jump. But Tuttle thinks that’s probably true of many animals, and that researchers focus on bats because they’re easy to catch, monitor, and build flashy papers around. That, in turn, can help secure funding and career advancement. So while researchers found a 99 percent match for Wuhan coronavirus in pangolins, he argued, they “decided not to pursue it because they didn’t want to disturb the poor, endangered pangolins.” (At least some papers exploring the pangolin link have actually called for further research.)
“Bats just don’t seem to have enough defenders,” he told The Daily Beast.
There are over 1,400 bat species, according to researcher Gerald Carter, who runs a bat-centric lab at Ohio State University, and not all of them carry or risk spreading dangerous diseases. So talking about bats in general as pestilent and dangerous, as bat-lovers believe far too many people do, makes no sense to them. And even when bats do carry dangerous diseases, researchers note that it’s actually incredibly rare for them to spread those diseases quickly or directly to humans. In most cases, notes Texas Tech University bat researcher Tigga Kingston, bats will carry a pathogen for hundreds or even thousands of years without passing it on to humans or other intermediary species.
In truth, bat advocates say, bat-borne diseases typically only turn into problems for humans when we make them problems—usually by hurting bats. Human encroachment on and destruction of bat habitats put us and our livestock in closer contact with bats who, stressed out by change and threats, start to shed more virus copies, making jumps to new species more likely. Overhunting bats and storing them in unsanitary wildlife markets also promotes the spread of viruses—as well as the flight of viral bats to new environments.
This makes calls to protect humans by killing (more) bats feel downright farcical to many in this world. Such calls also risk robbing regions of all the wonderful things bats do that so many of us never notice. Many bats pollinate plants and spread their seeds—they’re especially vital to agave plants, notes bat conservationist Tara C. Hohoff of the Illinois Bat Conservation Program, and thus to the tequila industry. Others eat insects and help provide at least $1 billion in value to global agriculture every year. Others still play a major role in rainforest regrowth.
None of this means we shouldn’t be talking about the possible role bats played in the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus, most bat people concede. Understanding their part in this crisis could be vital to preventing others in the future. Bat fans just wish we’d talk about that with a little more nuance, recognition of our own role in the spread of diseases from bats to other animals, and advice to nudge people away from anti-bat violence and towards conservation.
That advice could be as simple as “don’t touch a bat if you see one,” as Carter put it, pleadingly. “Just leave them alone.”