Article image

Good advice: Leave bats alone if we want to prevent future pandemics

Leave bats alone! That’s the strong message relayed in a landmark paper featured in the esteemed journal The Lancet Planetary Health. The prevention of future pandemics hinges on global cooperation and, perhaps surprisingly, a collective commitment to respect the habitats of bats, allowing these creatures to live undisturbed. 

Bats have long been associated with disease outbreaks. Both the SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2003 and the COVID-19 pandemic can trace their origins back to a bat virus. 

The details of how exactly the virus jumped from bats to humans remains unclear; perhaps someone handled or consumed an infected bat, came into contact with bat bodily fluids in a cave, or was exposed to another animal infected by a bat. 

A lab accident involving a virus originating from a bat is also a possibility. Despite the uncertainty, the authors of the paper insist that action can and must be taken, regardless of the specifics.

Bats are hosts for many viruses

Scientists have known for some time that bats harbor a variety of viruses that pose potential threats to other species, including humans. These include but are not limited to the rabies virus, Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah paramyxoviruses, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) Coronavirus, and even strains of Ebolaviruses, for which fruit bats are believed to be a primary source.

In this fresh analysis, the researchers make a case for a global pact – a sort of “bat taboo” – in which humans worldwide agree to respect bat habitats, avoid interference with these creatures and allow them to live in peace. 

Such human activities as hunting, culling, or even simply trying to drive bats away serve only to scatter these creatures, potentially increasing the likelihood of zoonotic spillover – the transmission of viruses from animals to humans.

Removing the interface that allows animal-human virus transmission

If the old saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds true, then we must commit to these fundamental, commonsense measures that could significantly reduce the risk of future pandemics, say the study’s authors. These measures essentially target the interface where dangerous viruses can move from animals into humans.

“In a globalized world with 8 billion people, we can no longer ignore our interconnectedness with the wildlife and ecosystems around us. We must change humanity’s relationship with nature if we want to prevent the next pandemic of zoonotic origin—and that can start with bats,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

In a nutshell, humanity needs to mend its fractured relationship with nature, and bats specifically. The costs of enforcing such behavioral changes are trivial in comparison to the colossal toll another global pandemic could impose.

All of humanity must work together

“Getting humanity to work collaboratively at a global scale underpins most of the existential challenges we face, from climate change and environmental pollution to biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse – this at a time when earnest collaboration even at local scales often seems elusive,” said study lead author Professor Steven A. Osofsky of Cornell University.

“However, if we can actually stop hunting, eating, and trading bats, stay out of their caves, keep livestock away from areas where bats are concentrated, and if we can stop deforesting, degrading (or even start restoring) their natural habitats, we can indisputably lower the chances of another pandemic.”

It’s not just about lowering the risk of future pandemics; letting bats thrive also brings a bounty of ecological benefits. Bats control the population of mosquitos and other harmful insects, pollinate a wide array of essential crops, and provide other invaluable ecosystem services worth billions of dollars.

The researchers conclude that while interactions with all sorts of animals merit close examination, giving bats the space they need is the most straightforward and accessible step towards real upstream pandemic prevention. This insight, albeit a bit late, rings even more true as we mark the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Where to learn more about the study

This recent analysis – titled “An Immediate Way to Lower Pandemic Risk: (Not) Seizing the Low-Hanging Fruit (Bat)” – carries considerable weight as it was conducted by experts from the esteemed institutions of Cornell University and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Their work offers an enlightening perspective on pandemic prevention strategies, demonstrating the need to respect the natural world, particularly the habitats of bats.

Supported by a generous grant from the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, the study highlights the need for global action and cooperation. Such a comprehensive approach will help us confront not only pandemic risks but also other existential challenges like climate change, environmental pollution, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem collapse. 

Only through collective action and the fostering of a healthier relationship with nature, starting with bats, can we hope to prevent future pandemics and protect our shared future on this planet.

Published on June 5th, 2023, this study contributes significantly to the ongoing discourse on the prevention of future pandemics and the importance of ecosystem conservation. It emphasizes humanity’s need to reconsider and reshape its relationship with wildlife, reinforcing the importance of respecting and protecting the creatures that share our world.

More about bats

Bats are fascinating creatures that play an essential role in our world. They are the only mammals capable of sustained flight, as opposed to gliding or soaring. 

Bats belong to the order Chiroptera, which is divided into two suborders: Megachiroptera (large fruit bats or flying foxes) and Microchiroptera (small bats primarily known for their echolocation abilities).

There are over 1,400 species of bats worldwide, making them the second most common group of mammals after rodents. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica and are most abundant in tropical and subtropical regions. Their sizes vary significantly, from the tiny bumblebee bat that weighs less than a penny to the large flying foxes with wingspans of up to 1.7 meters.

Interesting biological facts about bats

Bats exhibit a vast array of feeding habits. Some species, such as the fruit bats, primarily feed on fruits, while others, like the infamous vampire bats, feed on blood. However, the majority of bat species, particularly those found in temperate regions, consume insects—a single bat can eat thousands of insects in one night, acting as a natural pest control.

Bats use a biological sonar system known as echolocation to navigate and find food in the dark. They produce sounds that bounce off objects in their environment, allowing them to understand their surroundings by listening to the echo of these sounds.

Bats are also crucial pollinators. They help to fertilize flowers as they feed on nectar, playing a significant role in the reproduction of various plant species. Furthermore, bats contribute to seed dispersal, as fruit-eating bats often excrete seeds in their droppings.

The downside of bats

On the downside, bats are known to be reservoirs of several viruses that can infect humans and other animals, including rabies, Ebola, Nipah, Hendra, and coronaviruses, which were responsible for SARS, MERS, and likely COVID-19. Despite this, bats themselves often remain unaffected by these viruses due to their unique immune systems.

Bats are a crucial part of the ecosystem but are under threat worldwide due to habitat loss, hunting, climate change, and diseases like white-nose syndrome in North America. Conservation efforts are in place globally to protect and preserve these unique and vital creatures.

More about animal-to-human disease transmission

Animal to human disease transmission, also known as zoonotic disease transmission, occurs when diseases are passed from animals, whether wild or domestic, to humans. This process can happen in various ways and is responsible for a significant proportion of infectious diseases in humans.

The transfer can occur through direct contact when humans interact with animals or their waste. This interaction can be through handling, petting, caring for, or slaughtering animals. For instance, rabies is a zoonotic disease that is typically transmitted through bites from infected animals.

Different types of transmission

Indirect transmission happens when humans come into contact with areas where animals live and roam, or through vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. An example is Lyme disease, transmitted through the bite of an infected tick.

Transmission can also occur via the food chain when people consume uncooked or undercooked contaminated meat or produce contaminated by animal feces. Diseases like salmonellosis and E.coli infections can occur this way.

Airborne transmission is another route where microorganisms can be disseminated to humans through the air. This is suspected to have played a part in the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the cause of COVID-19.

Most common animals involved in disease transfer

Bats, rodents, primates, and birds are known to harbor diseases that can spill over into human populations, often due to human activities that disrupt ecosystems and animal habitats. For example, deforestation can lead to increased contact between humans and wildlife, thereby increasing the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.

Understanding and mitigating zoonotic transmission is an essential part of public health, as many serious outbreaks in recent history, such as H1N1 influenza (swine flu), H5N1 influenza (bird flu), Ebola, SARS, MERS, and COVID-19, are believed to have animal origins. 

It’s also why there’s a strong emphasis on a “One Health” approach, which views the health of humans, animals, and the environment as interconnected. By preserving animal habitats and maintaining a respectful distance, we can reduce the risk of future pandemics.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day