By Dr. Touseef Ahmed
- 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 transfer SARS-COV-2 independently without the aid of any intermediary species. Pangolin is believed to be that intermediary species. However, we do not say anything for sure, how they interact which resulted in the transmission of SARS-COV-2.
- Why are bats a reservoir for viruses?
Bats are the 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.
Looking at the largest dataset of viruses and hosts across several orders of mammal and bird, researchers found that the number of bats and rodents viruses that have infected people is proportionate to the number of species contained in those groups
- Why emerging zoonotic diseases are bat’s borne?
Bats are the most threatened mammals due to climate change-driven global warming. Since bats have the least thermodynamic tolerance among all living mammals. This constant heat stress concomitant human’s bat conflict due to habitat destruction has contributed in a number of bat borne zoonotic diseases (Ebola, Rabies, Nipah, Hendra, SARS, etc.) emergence. It is important to note, bats do have diseases as other animals do and these diseases will transfer only if an active contact with bats and bats materials (meat, guanos, etc.) is made.
- How bats protect themselves from these pathogens?
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.
Additionally, there are evidences that bats have an evolutionary relationship with the virus that resides in it. Which means that these viruses evolved within bats, hence, infective for bats themselves.
A recent study shows that bats can develop an anti-inflammatory stage which prevents them from these viruses, which is actually quite amazing because it gives clues for a 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 a need for more awareness for the public and authorities, to appreciate how important bats are, for the sustainable ecosystem and world economy.
- In many places across the world, people start burning bats roosts. 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.
This panic reminds Great Plague of the 17th Century when people started killing rats in fear of plague spread. As a result, there was more intense plague afterward because flea which was vector of the disease started feeding more on dead mice.
- Should cultures that have traditionally eaten bats stop the practice now?
We have reports that many countries have secret wildlife bushmeat markets like in China and some African countries where people trade bats for eating purposes. There is still a lot need to be done to change people’s behavior and abolish bat meat-eating culture and traditions around many regions of the world.
- How many bats species does Pakistan have? What are the pressing threats for bat species of Pakistan face these days?
The bat fauna of Pakistan is richer and more diverse than the whole Palearctic, which is the largest biogeographic region of the world, comprising 54 species, 25 genera, and eight families.
Habitat destruction is the most serious threat for most of the bats species worldwide including Pakistan. Land use for agriculture and humans settlement have significantly reduced bats habitat across Pakistan. 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 the Indian subcontinent which is continuously under threat from harsh summer temperature.
- Will the COVID-19 pandemic hurt global bat conservation efforts?
We believe the 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 the COVID-19 pandemic, which appreciate human health is related with wellbeing of animals and environmental health.
About the Author
Dr. Touseef Ahmed is a Ph.D. Scholar in Kingston Lab at Texas Tech University, USA. He also work Global Union for Bats Diversity Network GBatNet, which is a worldwide bat research group.