On April 25, actor Amitabh Bachchan announced on social media that a bat had flown into his home. “Corona peecha chodh hi nahin raha,” he tweeted. It is possible that he was joking when he connected the flying mammal with the pandemic that has brought normal life to a halt. But the joke ceases to be funny when considered alongside news that people in Bengaluru have demanded that fruit-bearing trees (a primary source of food for frugivorous bats) be chopped and bat colonies removed from near their homes.
Every city, town and village needs its bats. Bats are the world’s best pollinators and seed dispersers, playing a vital role in keeping forests healthy. Their insatiable hunger for insects, especially mosquitoes, is the reason why many of us are protected from deadly vector-borne diseases like malaria. If that’s not reason enough to love your neighbourhood bats, bat researcher and doctoral student at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin, Rohit Chakravarty says, “No bats, no tequila, or mahua. Fruit-eating bats pollinate agave from which tequila is produced. In India, they are known to disperse the seeds of mahua. They are also the chief pollinators of the flowers of durian, which is a multi-million-dollar industry worldwide, and the flowers of some species of mangroves, making them responsible for our strong coastal defence system.” Bats also devour insects that feed on rice, corn and cotton farms, saving the agriculture industry from the economic loss of pest attacks.
But are bats responsible for spreading COVID-19, as panic-stricken citizens seem to believe? While it is true that certain species of bats carry various coronavirus strains, SARS-COV-2, which is responsible for COVID-19, is not one of them. However, thanks to unverified news about the pandemic circulating on social media, the mammal has been vilified as a primary actor in the virus’s spread. A study, published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in April, by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that notes two species of Indian bats in Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu were found to carry a coronavirus called bat coronavirus or BtCoV couldn’t have come at a worse time for these winged creatures.
The result is that people want them out of their vicinity. In response to the surge of calls that inundated the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the principal chief conservator of forests, Sanjay Mohan, issued a stern warning that killing or harming bats will invite action in accordance with the applicable law. In Rajasthan, a large number of bats were killed owing to fears about the virus, leading the state forest department to issue a warning earlier this month that such actions would be punished under the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972).
The urgency of the situation has led 64 chiropterologists from six South Asian countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) to come together and clarify that bats do not spread COVID-19. In a seven-point press release, they emphasised that since the exact origin of SARS-COV-2 is unknown, it is premature and unfair to blame bats. They also said that the BtCoV in the ICMR study has nothing to do with COVID-19 and BtCoV itself won’t cause any harm to humans.
So what links bats to coronavirus? Abi Tamim Vanak, senior fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment and fellow, department of Biotechnology/ Wellcome Trust India Alliance, says, “Bats, like many mammals, are a reservoir of viruses. They harbour a high diversity of viruses. Remarkable as it may seem, they are generally not affected by these viruses. Several hypotheses exist as reasons — from a high metabolic rate to an efficient immune system. Except for rabies (through rabid bats) and the virus responsible for Nipah (fruit-eating bats), there is very little evidence of direct transmission of viruses from bats to humans.”
Chakravarty believes human activities are largely to blame for SARS-COV-2. “Wildlife trade, theoretically, is a viral melting pot if you imagine animals from different parts of the world stacked in cages, one over the other, facilitating the exchange of bodily fluids among them. Intensive captive breeding of domestic or wild animals is also a strong suspect — a lot of animals are in close contact with each other. Plus, they are highly inbred, which means that they lack the genetic diversity to fight off pathogens. So, any new virus that they may encounter can evolve into a deadly virus that can jump hosts and affect humans,” he says.
Vanak says that though bats may not directly transmit SARS and SARS 2 viruses to humans, one hypothesis for the emergence of nCov19 suggests that an intermediate animal, perhaps a pangolin, facilitated the transmission. “The intermediate animals serve as amplifying hosts, especially in favourable conditions, such as in a wet market. Mutation of viruses happens in host animals, some of which can turn deadly when spread to humans,” he says.
Arathi Menon is a Mysuru-based writer and yoga practitioner
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