Bats To Blame For COVID-19 Driving Us Batty?

Forced self-isolation and social distancing due to the ongoing pandemic driving you batty? The finger of blame for our current circumstances can likely be pointed at bats. Bats? Yup, the only flying mammal in the world may be the source for COVID-19.

A coronavirus, such as COVID-19, is a zoonotic disease. “Zoonotic” is a fancy schmanzy term meaning it is caused by an animal virus picked up by humans. Scientists must determine what animal started this crazy pandemic, and bats are the prime suspect.

Previously we feared bats because they might (according to books, movies and TV) turn into vampires. No worries. Just keep a cross or some garlic handy. Unfortunately, vampires are the least of our concerns when it comes to bats. Scientists tell us bats have been linked with seven major epidemics over the past three decades. Holy health crisis, Batman! 

Bats are thought to be the natural host of the Ebola virus, rabies, SARS, and MERS. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is a distant relative of SARS; it shares about 80% of the same genetic sequence. Yes, criminals and bats alike can be busted by DNA. According to the scientific journal Viruses, at least 200 coronaviruses have been identified in bats. That’s a lot of viruses for such a small creature.

Researchers in China have traced COVID-19 to horseshoe bats, a common bat species in China. These bats are found in Yunnan, over 1,000 miles away from Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the pandemic. Yunnan is a region in southern China with an extensive system of caves. And even if we don’t have Ph.D.’s, we all know bats like to hang out (literally hang) in caves. 

Virologist Shi Zhengli, known as China’s “Bat Woman,” has years of experience with virus-hunting expeditions in dark and dank caves. Her data, published in the journal Nature, identified a disease in the Yunnan horseshoe bats with a genetic sequence which is 96% identical to COVID-19. Why not 100%? Apparently a virus mutates as it jumps from species to species, so scientists would not find an exact copy of the coronavirus in animals as is found in humans. A 96% match is about as close to a smoking gun, or in this case a smoking bat, as one is going to find. 

But why should we worry about what bats in China carry? The fact that the bats are in China isn’t the point; it’s the fact that bats are the carrier. Over 1,300 species of bats exist, and bats are found on every continent except Antarctica. According to the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”), three of four emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals, and bats contain the highest proportion of mammalian viruses likely to affect people. 

So why don’t we just eradicate bats then if they are natural reservoirs for viruses that can negatively affect humans’ public health? Alas, such action would cause unwanted repercussions because bats are essential parts of ecosystems. They control insect populations by eating them, fertilize through their guano, and assist with pollination. Who knew bats were so helpful?

Even if bats are the source of the virus which has mutated and wreaked havoc on the human world in the form of COVID-19, are the bats ultimately to blame for this outcome? A well-reasoned case can be made that humans, not bats, are the real villian.

Bats are increasingly coming into contact with humans due to deforestation and urbanization–activities carried out by, you guessed it, humans.. This contact allows the opportunity for the transmission of viruses the bats carry. Moreover, when bats are stressed, say from the loss of their natural habitat, their immune system is challenged; it is then harder for them to cope with the virus. Infections increase and viruses are excreted.

A second strike against humans is how they deal with bats. Bats are eaten as food in China, so they are captured and brought to wet markets such as the one in Wuhan. Talk about stress. Think a caged bat observing fellow bats being slaughtered for customers right in front of them won’t stress them out? They will excrete the virus which may hop to a caged animal of another species who contracts the virus. In the SARS epidemic, for example, it was determined that the virus went from horseshoe bats to civets (a catlike creature eaten in China) to humans. Yuk to eating both bats and civets!

This point is where the story takes a sinister turn. There were no bats found at the wet market in Wuhan which was the suspected source of contamination for humans. Where were the bats? Why they were hibernating in their dark, comfy caves in late December when the first outbreak was reported. But what WAS present in Wuhan was the Wuhan Institute of Virology located mere minutes away from the wildlife market. Could the virus have come from there?

The virology institute is a high security lab in Wuhan which was built right after the SARS outbreak. It contains the largest virus bank in Asia. (Not sure who’d be depositing viruses there, but they call it a bank.) The institute holds more than 1,500 strains of deadly viruses and specializes particularly in viruses carried by bats.

Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology experimented on bats as a part of a project funded by the U.S.’s National Institutes of Health. A $3.7 million NIH grant funded the institute’s coronavirus experiment on mammals captured in Yunnan, site of the horseshoe bat caves. Part of the research included growing coronavirus in a lab and injecting it into three day old piglets. I don’t think those piglets were squealing in delight at their treatment.

As a result of the institute’s location at the initial pandemic epicenter, conspiracy theories have been put forth. According to one theory, the virus escaped from the lab. (That’s one smart and determined virus!) Virologist Shi, the lab’s deputy director, refuted that claim stating none of the genome sequences in infected patients matched the institute’s virus samples. A second theory is that China was experimenting with the virus as a biological warfare weapon. If so, they were either heartlessly testing it on their own citizens or careless in not controlling its spread. 

Regardless of whether you hold bats, humans, or both responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak, the fact is a pandemic is ongoing. Pointing a finger of blame doesn’t change the current reality. However, we don’t want the current reality to occur again in the future. Therefore, we need to get a handle on where the virus originated and how it was transmitted. Scientists are working on that as the rest of us are going batty in self-isolation and practicing social distancing. I, for one, am happy to socially distance myself from any and all bats–virus carrying or not.

Just WONDER-ing: Have you ever visited a bat cave? If so, would you do so again after reading this post? Should wet markets selling wildlife be banned either for public health or humanitarian reasons? How would you feel living next to an institute holding a bank of deadly viruses? Is it a good idea to have one located near a large population center?