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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers on Bats and COVID-19

  • Is there any scientific basis to the theory that the novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) may have its origin in bats?

Bats do share some genomic similarities with SARS-COV-2 but it’s highly unlikely that bats can transfers SARS-COV-2 independently without the aid of any intermediary species. Pangolin is believe to be that intermediary species. However, we do not say anything for sure, how they interact which resulted in transmission of SARS-COV-2

  • Why are bats a reservoir for viruses? And how do they protect themselves from these pathogens?

Bats are reservoir of viruses just as any other animal species. In fact, there are other animals that carry more viruses than bats like migratory birds, rodents and pigs.

Bats have unique body physiology. They raise their body temperature as a flight mechanism, which can result in damage of virus particle (genome), that no longer remain viable to infect bats themselves.

Additional, there are evidences that bats have evolutionary relationship with viruse that reside in it. Which means that these virus evolved within bats, hence, infective for bats themselves.

A recent study shows that bats can develop an anti-inflammatory stage which prevent them form these viruses, which is actually quite amazing because it gives clues for human line of treatment against similar viral diseases

  • As a bat expert, what is your reaction to the vilification of bats in the wake of COVID-19?

It is totally unjustified to vilify nature’s most mysterious and beneficial wildlife species. COVID-19 is spreading through human to human transmission. This mass hysteria of blaming bats has no justification and scientific proof to support. I feel there is need for more awareness for public and authorities, to appreciate how important bats are, for sustainable ecosystem and world economy.

  • In many cities across the world, residents have called in experts to remove bats from their roosts in buildings. Is this panic reaction warranted?

It is highly painful as a bat researcher to see, how people are reacting to their friendliest bats neighbors. It is important to understand that bats do harbor zoonotic viruses but these viruses will not inflict harm to people until people start disturbing and poking them and continue degrading their habitats.

  • Should cultures that have traditionally eaten bats stop the practice now?

We have reports that many countries have secret wildlife bush meat markets like in China and some African countries where people trade bats for eating purposes. There is still lot need to be done to change people behavior and abolish bat meat eating culture and traditions around many regions of world.

  • What are the pressing threats that most of the 1,400 bat species worldwide face these days?

Habitat destruction is the most serious threat for most of the bats species worldwide. Land use for agriculture and humans settlement have significantly reduced bats habitat across world. In addition, climate change induced global warming has further aggravated living conditions for bats particularly in South Asia. Pteropus medius is a local bats species in Indian subcontinent which is continuously under threat from harsh summer temperature.

  • Will the COVID-19 pandemic hurt global bat conservation efforts?

We believe COVID-19 pandemic will not hurt global bat conservation efforts. In fact it will support our cause for wildlife especially bats conservation. One Health Approach is gaining momentum after COVID-19 pandemic, which appreciate human health is related with wellbeing of animals and environment health.

About Author

Dr. Touseef Ahmed is a PhD Scholar in Kingston Lab at Texas Tech University, USA. He is working on bats borne zoonotic diseases ecology and epidemiology in Pakistan. He is a founder of non-profit platform DEPAK.ORG, which is created for enhancing wildlife conservation and zoonosis through effective engagement. He is also representing Pakistan in Global Union for Bats Diversity Network GBatNet

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South Asian Scientists and Conservationists Bust Myths About Bats and COVID-19

The world is currently battling a pandemic of unprecedented proportions and bats have been prematurely implicated as the source of COVID-19. Recent social media posts and unverified opinions about bats have led to widespread antipathy and fear in the general public. Incidents of the public requesting for removal of bats, destroying bat roosts, bursting crackers or smoking them out and sealing crevices where bats and their pups roost has increased in the last month both in urban and rural areas in India [1,2]. In this challenging time, we, as people involved in bat conservation at different capacities, would like to clarify that bats do not pose a direct human health hazard. On the contrary, we highlight the role of bats in improving the ecosystem, economy and human health. The following points are listed out in this summary and are elaborated.

  1. The exact origin of SARS-CoV-2 or its precursor is not known. It is premature and unfair to blame bats or any other animal for the pandemic.
  2. Scientists strongly suggest that it is  highly unlikely  for SARS-like viruses to jump directly from bats to humans.  Also, there is no evidence of humans contracting coronavirus or any such viruses through the excreta of bats . 
  3. The recent report from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on the discovery of bat coronaviruses (BtCoV) in two species of South Asian bats poses no known health hazard. The viruses found in the study are different from  SARS-CoV-2 and cannot cause COVID-19.
  4. Information on the current, and past zoonotic disease outbreaks suggest that global wildlife trade and/or large-scale industrial livestock farming play an important role in such events. Killing bats and other wild animals, or evicting them from their roosts in retaliation is counterproductive and will not solve any  problems.
  5. Bats perform vital ecosystem services. They pollinate the flowers of some mangroves, and many other commercially and culturally important plants. Insect-eating bats are voracious eaters of pest insects in rice, corn, cotton and potentially, tea farms.Therefore, bats benefit ecological and human health, and provide intangible economic benefits. 
  6. The society currently needs more awareness about the bats around them in addition to epidemiological facts for a healthy coexistence.  We therefore, request media houses and the press to consider possible negative impacts of their statements on bats and other animals before releasing them. 
  7. Lastly, we urge the governments of South Asian countries to strengthen the legal framework to protect bats in view of their ecosystem services and their slow breeding capacity. 

On the origin and transmission of SARS-CoV-2

The actual origin of SARS-CoV-2 is highly debated among scientists. SARS-CoV-2 appears to be similar to another coronavirus RaTG13 found in a species of bat called the Intermediate Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus affinis) [3]. However, a recent study has shown that RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2 diverged 40-70 years ago from each other (a long timespan for the evolution of viruses) and hence the direct transmission of SARS-CoV-2 or its precursor from bats to humans is improbable [4,5]. Moreover, the surface proteins of all SARS-like viruses found in bats cannot bind efficiently to the corresponding receptors of the human lung epithelium which makes direct transmission even more unlikely [4]. 

It is also highly improbable that the faeces of bats pose an immediate health risk to humans and, none of the previous zoonotic disease outbreaks, globally, show any evidence that they were caused due to contact with bat faeces [6,7,8]. However, fungal infections (for eg. Histoplasmosis) may arise from unprotected contact with the faeces of any wild animal, so following basic hygiene rules is advised.

Coronaviruses in two species of Indian bats

None of the South Asian bats are proven to be natural reservoirs of SARS-CoV-2. Recently, a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) found bat coronaviruses (BtCoV) in the common Indian Flying Fox (Pteropus medius a.k.a giganteus) and Fulvous Fruit Bat (Rousettus leschenaultii) [9]. However, less than 5% of the screened samples contained this BtCoV and, as the study mentions, it is very distantly-related to SARS-CoV-2 and hence cannot cause COVID-19.

Relationship between bats and zoonotic disease outbreaks

The real drivers of zoonotic disease outbreaks are predominantly man-made and many animals are carriers of viruses which could potentially spillover to humans. However, in recent times only bats are unfortunately in focus for being reservoirs of viruses. Like any other animal, bats are also reservoirs of many zoonotic viruses. However, being reservoirs does not mean that they spread diseases to humans. In reality, there is very little scientific evidence to prove bats have directly transmitted viruses to humans or caused outbreaks. The only known exception was the Nipah (NiV) outbreak in Bangladesh which was caused through indirect contact between bats and humans. As the cause of the outbreak was identified, it became easy to control and prevent subsequent outbreaks through basic precautionary and mitigation measures [7,10]. Habitat fragmentation, global wildlife trade and wet markets, large-scale industrial farming of wild and domestic animals have synergistic effects in bringing animals in close contact in unsanitary or stressful conditions—ideal conditions for the transmission and evolution of novel zoonotic viruses [11]. Hence, during such outbreaks there is no reason to single out or villainise only bats – whose benefits far outweigh  the perceived negativity associated with them. . 

Bats are beneficial for humans and the ecosystem 

Bats perform vital ecosystem services all over the world. Fruit bats help pollinate globally important cash crops like durian [12] and agave (the plant that produces tequila) [13]. In South Asia, the culturally-significant tree Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) appears to be predominantly bat-pollinated [14]. In Nepal, Chiuri (Diploknema butyracea), a multipurpose tree for the rural populace is pollinated by bats [15]. Small fruit bats also pollinate the flowers of mangroves, which is an extremely productive ecosystem and also a natural barrier to coastal erosion and sea surges, thereby forming our first line of defence to natural disasters. Insectivorous bats, on the other hand, voraciously eat pest insects that cause economic losses in rice plantations [16] and also eat mosquitoes. For instance, bats are estimated to save ~800 million USD for cocoa farmers in Indonesia [17] and ~22 billion dollars (annually) for corn farmers in the United States [18] through pest control. The importance of bats as seed dispersers, pollinators and pest controllers, particularly in the region’s important cash crops (like tea) is beginning to be unravelled. Epidemiologically, the unique immune system of bats could provide clues on handling viruses, therefore they should be seen as a solution to disease outbreaks, rather than the problem.  

Concluding remarks

In view of the above points, we firmly believe that the mass hysteria against bats is unfair and uncalled for. The current pandemic is an outcome of the ongoing ecological destruction, increasing intensification of livestock farming and wildlife trade. We urge people not to believe in news from unverified sources and cause harm to bats in retaliation. Likewise, we request the media to not oversimplify scientific evidence, to emphasise the role of humans in disease outbreaks and to highlight the importance of coexistence with bats in urban landscapes. Bats have been living around us for centuries and we have been disease free wherever bats have been left to their business. Oversimplified or unverified information from the press not only creates unnecessary fear among the public but also pushes decades of conservation efforts backwards which is far more destructive for the ecosystem.. In India, only two species (out of 128) are protected by law, while many other species are more endangered or lack scientific information [19]. In Nepal, too, all species are unprotected, including two species from the National Red List [20] and the same is true for Pakistan. We urge the governments of these countries to reconsider and reinforce the laws governing bat conservation. 

Signatories

*Email IDs are provided for those who have agreed to be contacted by the media

  1. Touseef Ahmed, PhD Student , Teaching Assistant, Department of Biological Sciences Texas Tech University
  2. Rohit Chakravarty, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin, Germany <[email protected]>
  3. Baheerathan Murugavel, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Thiruvananthapuram (IISER TVM), India <[email protected]>  
  • Dr. Seshadri K S, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT), India <[email protected]>
  • Vidisha Kulkarni, Jain University and GubbiLabs, Bangalore, India
  • Rajesh Puttaswamaiah, Citizen Scientist & Trustee, Bat Conservation India Trust, Bangalore, India <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Vadamalai Elangovan, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India <[email protected]>
  • Shriranjani Iyer,Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Anaikatty, Coimbatore, India <[email protected]>  
  • Aditya Srinivasulu, Biodiversity Research and Conservation Society, Hyderabad, India. <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Pushpa Raj Acharya, Central Campus of Science and Technology, Mid-Western University, Birendranagar, Surkhet, Nepal <[email protected]>
  • Basanta Sharma, Nepal Bats Research and Conservation Union (NeBRCU), Pokhara, Nepal. <[email protected]>
  • Dr. T.Ganesh, Senior Fellow, Ashoka Trust for research in Ecology and the Environment(ATREE), Bangalore, India
  • Sanjeev Baniya, Nepal Bat Research and Conservation Union (NeBRCU), Pokhara, Nepal. <[email protected]>
  • Dr. A. Rathinakumar, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, India <[email protected]>
  1. Dr. Chetan HC, Assistant Professor, The University of Transdisciplinary Health Sciences and Technology, Centre for Conservation of Natural resources, Bengaluru, India <[email protected]>
  1. Dr. R. Ganesan, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore, India  
  2. Rohit Chouhan, Wildlife Research Fellow, Department of Wildlife Science, University of  Kota, Kota, Rajasthan, India. <[email protected]>
  3. Kaushik N, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, India <[email protected]>
  1. Dr. Sumit Dookia, Assistant Professor, University School of Environment Management, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, India <[email protected]il.com>
  1. Aishanya Sarma, Conservation Initiatives, Assam, India <[email protected]>
  • Kasturi Saha, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, India <[email protected]>
  • Ram Mohan, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune (IISER Pune), India <[email protected]>
  • Tariq Ahmed Shah, Wildlife Biology & Taxonomy Lab, Osmania University, Hyderabad, India. <[email protected]>
  • Devna Arora, Rehabber’s Den, Pune, India <[email protected]>
  • Harish Prakash, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, India <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Parvathy Venugopal, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, United Kingdom. <[email protected]>
  • Rajlakshmi Mishra, University School of Environmental Management, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, India <[email protected]>
  • Rahul Prabhukhanolkar, Mhadei Research Center, Belagavi and Indian Bat Conservation Research Unit, India <[email protected]>
  • A. Karthikeyan, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, India. <[email protected]>
  • Prof. Hema Somanathan, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Thiruvananthapuram (IISER-TVM), India <[email protected]>
  • Prof. G. Marimuthu, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, India
  • Dr. Utttam Saikia, Zoological Survey of India, Shillong, India <[email protected]>
  • Dr. H. Raghuram, PG and Research Department of Zoology, The American College, Madurai 625 002, Tamil Nadu, India <[email protected]>
  • Tharaka Kusuminda, Department of Agricultural Biology, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Ruhuna, Kamburupitiya, Sri Lanka. <[email protected]>
  • Jayanthi Kallam,  Founder and Executive Director, Avian and Reptile Rehabilitation Trust, Bangalore, India <[email protected]>
  • Prof. Sripathi Kandula, Madurai Kamaraj University / Chettinad Academy of Research and Education, Chennai, India <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Amani Mannakkara,  Department of Agricultural Biology, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Ruhuna, Kamburupitiya, Sri Lanka. <[email protected]>
  • Ravi Umadi, Department of Biologie II, Biocenter, Ludwig-Maximillians Universitaet, Munich, Germany <[email protected]>
  • Sargam Singh Rasaily IFS, APCCF/Member Secretary, Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board, Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India <[email protected]>
  • R.M.T. Priyanwada Rathnayake, Master of Environment Management , Faculty of Graduate Studies , University of Colombo, Sri Lanka <[email protected]>
  • Sangay Tshering, College of Natural Resources, Royal University of Bhutan, Punakha, Bhutan. <[email protected]>
  • Dr. D. Paramanantha Swami Doss, Assistant Professor, St. John’s College, Palayamkottai, Tamil Nadu, India <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Venkatesh Nagarajan Radha, Postdoc Associate, University of Sydney, Australia. <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Chelmala Srinivasulu, Department of Zoology, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Telangana State, India <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Bhargavi Srinivasulu, Department of Zoology, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Telangana State, India  
  • Dr. S. Baskaran, Assistant Professor, Department of Biotechnology, The Madura College, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India <[email protected]>
  • Chamara Amarasinghe, Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. <[email protected]>
  • Pratik Das, XVI M.Sc., Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, India.  
  • Dr. Touseef Ahmed, Department of Biological Sciences, Texas Tech University, Texas, USA. <[email protected]>
  • Dr. T. Karuppudurai, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, India. <[email protected]>
  • Steffi Christiane R, Department  of Animal Behaviour & Physiology, School of Biological Sciences, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, India. <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Manjari Jain, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali (IISER-M), India <[email protected]>
  • Suranjan Karunarathna, Nature Exploration and Education Team, Colombo, Sri Lanka <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Sanjay Molur, Co-chair, Chiroptera Conservation & Information Network of South Asia (CCINSA), Zoo Outreach Organization, Coimbatore, India. <[email protected]>
  • Dr. Kranti Yardi, Professor, Bharati Vidyapeeth Institute of Environment Education and Research,  Bharati Vidyapeeth Deemed to be University, Pune <[email protected]>
  • Aita Hang Subba, Guest faculty, Department of Zoology, Sikkim University, Gangtok, India <[email protected]>
  • M. Mathivanan, Senior Research Associate, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre (ACCC), Manimutharu, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, India <[email protected]>
  • Tijo K Joy, UNDP Cluster Coordinator- Conservation & Ecology HTML Project, Munnar, Kerala, India.
  • Dr. K. Emmanuvel Rajan, Department of Animal Science, School of Life Sciences, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirappalli-620024, Tamil Nadu, India <[email protected]>
  • Shasank Ongole, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka
  • Soham Mukherjee, Herpetologist & Wildlife Biologist, NAJA India, Ahmedabad (Gujarat), India <[email protected]>
  • Kadambari Deshpande, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore, India
  • Thejasvi Beleyur, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Germany <[email protected]>
  • Dr Md Nurul Islam, FETPV Technical Officer, Global Health Development (GHD), Bangladesh <[email protected]>

Note: The views of the signatories are personal and may not reflect those of their institutions.

References

  1. “Bats are Bengaluru’s enemy no 1 now”, news article in Bangalore Mirror on 20th April 2020. https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/bangalore/cover-story/bats-arebengalurus-enemy-no-1-now/articleshow/75240633.cms
  2. “Myths of bats spreadinng Coronavirus: Two trees chopped off in city”, news report in Star of Mysore on  3rd April 2020.  https://starofmysore.com/myth-of-batsspreading-coronavirus-two-trees-chopped-off-in-city/
  3. Zhou, P., Yang, X., Wang, X. et al. (2020). A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature 579, 270–273 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2012-7
  4. Andersen, K.G., Rambaut, A., Lipkin, W.I. et al. (2020) The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nat Med 26, 450–452. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-0820-9
  5. Boni, M.F., Lemey, P., Jiang, X. et al. (2020). Evolutionary origins of the SARSCoV-2 sarbecovirus lineage responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Preprint on www.biorxiv.org. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.30.015008
  6. World Health Organization Fact Sheet on Ebola: https://www.who.int/newsroom/fact-sheets/detail/ebola-virus-disease
  7. World Health Organization Fact Sheet on Nipah virus: https://www.who.int/newsroom/fact-sheets/detail/nipah-virus
  8. World Health Organization Fact Sheet on Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/middle-east-respiratory-syndromecoronavirus-(mers-cov)
  9. Yadav, P.D, Shete-Aich, A., Nyayanit, D.A., et al. (2020). Detection of coronaviruses in Pteropus and Rousettus species of bats from different states of India. Indian Journal of Medical Research  
  10. Dhillon, J., Banerjee, A. (2015) Controlling Nipah virus encephalitis in Bangladesh: Policy options. J Public Health Pol 36, 270–282. https://doi.org/10.1057/jphp.2015.13  
  1. Jones, B.A, Grace, D., Kock, R. et al. (2013). Zoonosis emergence linked to agricultural intensification and environmental change. PNAS 110 (21), 8399-8404.  https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1208059110
  2. Aziz, SA, Clements, GR, McConkey, KR, et al. (2017) Pollination by the locally endangered island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) enhances fruit production of the economically important durian (Durio zibethinus). Ecol Evol.; 7: 8670– 8684. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.3213  
  3. Trejo-Salazar, R.E,  Eguiarte, L.E, Suro-Piñera, D. and Medellin, R.A. (2016) Save Our Bats, Save Our Tequila: Industry and Science Join Forces to Help Bats and Agaves Natural Areas Journal 36(4), 523-530. https://doi.org/10.3375/043.036.0417  
  4. Nathan, P.T., Karupuddurai, T., Raghuram, H. and Marimuthu, G. (2009). Bat foraging strategies and pollination of Madhuca longifolia (Sapotaceae) in southern India. Acta Chiropterologica, 11(2): 435-441.
  5. Acharya, P.R. (2015). Chepang Chiuri and Chamera. Friends of Nature, Kathmandu.
  6. Wanger, T.C., Darras, K., Bumrungsri, S. et al. (2014). Bat pest control contributes to food security in Thailand. Biological Conservation, 171: 220-223.
  7. Maas, B., Clough, Y. and Tscharntke, T. (2013). Bats and birds increase crop yield in tropical agroforestry landscapes. Ecology Letters, 16: 1480-1487.
  8. Maine, J. and Boyles, J.G. (2015). Bats initiate vital agroecological interactions in corn. PNAS, 112(4): 12438-12443.
  9. Srinivasulu, C., Srinivasulu, A. and Srinivasulu. B. (2020). Checklist of the bats of South Asia (v1.1). https://threatenedtaxa.org/index.php/JoTT/checklists/bats/southasia [Date of publication: 13 April 2020].
  10. Jnawali, S.R., Baral, H.S., Acharya, K.P., Upadhyay, G.P. et al. (2011). The Status of Nepal Mammals: The National Red List Series, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Kathmandu, Nepal.  
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