April 17, 2020
Bat Appreciation Day 2020: Three Truths About Bats
- as seen by -Sarah H. Olson
As an epidemiologist and bat researcher reflecting on Bat Appreciation Day 2020, I want to share three truths about these flying mammals (hammer-headed fruit bat, Hypsignathus monstrosus, above).
First, the SARS-COV-2 virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic and impacting every aspect of life, traces its ancestral lineage to horseshoe bats (genus Rhinolophus).
Second, the bats themselves are not to blame for COVID-19. Viruses circulating in undisturbed wild bats pose no threat to human health. The cause of this spillover is related to human behaviors and activities that breach natural boundaries. We know zoonotic viruses (those passed from animals to humans) jump from wildlife when human activities and behaviors intrude on ecological systems. Current evidence suggests a commercial wildlife trade market in China played a part in the origins of this outbreak, just as it did during the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003. Many scientists are now working to understand exactly how this virus spilled over into humans and to learn if there were one or more intermediate hosts connecting the chain of infection between bats and humans.
The third truth is, we need to celebrate Bat Appreciation Day on behalf of all 1420 bat species discovered to date! Bats are amazing creatures that have been historically maligned and misunderstood. Yet, they provide ‘free’ insect control of agricultural pests and vectors of human disease as well as pollination services. Through no fault of their own they are now part of the COVID-19 origin story. So now, more than ever, we need to support bats so they can continue to thrive and contribute vital services towards human wellbeing and remain a presence in our backyards.