Are bats responsible for the coronavirus? It’s not certain!



Since the beginning of the pandemic, bats have been blamed for transmitting the SARS-Cov-2 virus to humans. There is no scientific proof that this is true. Meanwhile, the chiropteran could be a valuable ally in the fight against the ecological disaster we are experiencing. Some indigenous peoples in the Philippines and Oceania have long lived with bats. They respect them. Anthropologist Frédéric Laugrand met several of these peoples.

Why are bats being singled out today? ‘In any type of crisis or pandemic, the search for a culprit is a reflex, a typical reaction to being flummoxed. Stunned by what they’re experiencing, people try to find a scapegoat,’ explains Frédéric Laugrand, a researcher at the UCLouvain Laboratory for Prospective Anthropology. The bat has awakened a deep-seated imaginary perception. For a long time the bat has been seen as monstrous and evil. For physiological and biological reasons, the bat is certainly a reservoir species for many viruses that can be transmitted to humans, such as rabies, lyssaviruses, the respiratory syndrome-causing SARS virus, and Ebola. But so are many other animals. SARS-Cov2 has a genome that is 96% identical to a virus detected in chiropterans. Despite this finding, scientists have not yet identified with certainty the animal responsible for human transmission. Nevertheless, bats were immediately blamed for being responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. People most reviled by the species wanted to eliminate it. In Asia, indigenous people who live in contact with these animals see things very differently. They consider bats, also known as fruit bats, valuable allies. Some people have adopted them as pets, others use them in initiation rituals. The Australian Aborigines include them in their kinship systems. In Samoa the bat is a deity.

A respected species

Frédéric Laugrand and his team have been working for several years to document the knowledge of the indigenous populations of the Philippines and Austronesia. More specifically, he has studied the practices of some groups who have been living with these flying mammals for a very long time, in the mountains, by the sea or on the plains. ‘I found that bats played an important role in several of these societies,’ he explains. The Alangan are hunters. They live on the island of Mindoro, in forested or agricultural areas. They perceive bats in terms of cooperation. The bats drop fruit that is otherwise inaccessible to the Alangan, and their droppings contribute to reforestation. ‘Their meat is considered exceptional in terms of taste, but above all because it regenerates the body and mind. It purifies and invigorates the person.’ Bats are useful because they pollinate and reforest. They enrich the biotope and preserve the environment. They should therefore be respected.

The Aytas live in the northern Philippines, near a former military base. The area has been protected for many years. Biodiversity has probably remained richer there. The people are in contact with many species of bats. ‘The Aytas consider bats to be part of their own world, living in the same house, which is the forest,’ Prof. Laugrand says. ‘They eat them because they are beneficial to human vitality. Their blood regenerates the body and the brain.’ Such qualities are far removed from those that Westerners attribute to the animals, which they distrust.

Living together

The indigenous people of Asia who live harmoniously with bats have much to teach us. Not only in terms of biology and ethology, but also in terms of understanding how to protect ourselves from zoonotic diseases. In the specific case of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was suspected that the pangolin was the intermediate host through which the coronavirus passed from bats to humans. This hypothesis has now been discarded. ‘To understand zoonoses, it is essential to study both the interspecific relationships of bats, that is, the relationships they have with humans and other animals, and the knowledge humans have acquired,’ Prof. Laugrand explains. Observing the conditions under which certain populations live in contact with bats makes it possible to assess how dangerous such proximity is. ‘The challenge is to understand how to live together. The indigenous people have a particular vision of what we call nature. It’s an integral part of their lives. They’re aware that humans are vulnerable. They’re only one link in a chain of relationships. Covid-19 reminds us that we’re not alone, not independent and free of viruses. We’re interdependent.’

A precious ally

Several species of bats are now under threat. The cause? The decrease in biodiversity worldwide, overpopulation, urbanisation and the destruction of environments for exploitation. According to Prof. Laugrand, humanity should protect these animals because they’re effective at restoring devastated environments. ‘Also because they destroy insects that are vectors of terrible zoonoses such as malaria,’ he says. ‘Whether they’re insectivores or fruit eaters, bats are a valuable ally. They enrich biodiversity considerably and at the same time reduce the risk of spreading viruses to humans.’ Moreover, virologists are discovering the animals as models of immunity with extraordinary capacities. For example, their longevity is greater than that of other mammals of the same size. Bats also have an exceptional ability to control viral infections. ‘Paradoxically, they harbour many viruses but are able to tolerate these infections and have a mechanism for containing inflammatory reactions. Bats are also able to repair their DNA.’ Bats mitigate oxidative stress and resist carcinogenesis. These are powers that should be of interest to humans at a time when cancers and other such diseases are extremely common.

So why not go beyond the imaginary? Consider the bat not a ‘pandemic villain’ but rather a ‘companion species’. ‘These animals can help us find solutions to the problems we face today, such as the ecological crisis or immunity issues. The idea of a protective alliance interests me. We need to understand bats better and make sure they endure. We forget that we humans are probably the real culprits of this pandemic and of an unprecedented environmental disaster. We’re destroying biodiversity and suffering the effects.’

The publishing house of the Centre national de recherche scientifique (CNRS) has just published a book related to Frédéric Laugrand’s research: Les chauves-souris, aux frontières entre les espèces.

Anne Mauclet

Published on March 25, 2021