The ways in which bats benefit human beings strike closer to home than you might have thought. If you wear clothes made of cotton, bats work in your favor because they eliminate the pests that affect this plant. They’re also responsible for preventing those annoying mosquitoes from breeding uncontrollably. What’s more, they’re better at reforestation than an entire army, and they keep plants such as corn, chili, tomato, tea, and coffee free of pests.
Since January of this year, bats have been accused of another activity: spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. Researchers in China suggested that the new strain of coronavirus could have originated in this species. Rodrigo Medellín, a researcher from the Institute of Ecology at the UNAM and a specialist in these flying mammals, rejects the idea.
“There are certain unscrupulous researchers who are saying that bats carry the SARS-COV-2 virus. This is utterly false. Bats have their own viruses, but these are incompatible with our cells,” explains the specialist who has been studying these and other vertebrates for nearly 30 years. His knowledge of bats has earned him the nickname of the “Mexican Bat Man”.
Fighting the Myth
Medellín explains that it’s illogical for bats to have infected humans with the new coronavirus. “The S protein of bats (which the virus uses to get into our cells) is incompatible with human cells. Even if the bats wanted to infect us or a mad scientist wanted to take the virus as it exists in bats and pass it on to human beings, that couldn’t happen because the key held by the virus doesn’t open the door to our cells,” he emphasizes.
Ecologists and zoologists from London concur with Medellín and say that bats are not to blame. “The SARS-COV-2 that’s infecting people now hasn’t been found in bats. It doesn’t exist in them. Humans are the only species in which SARS-COV-2 has been found. Now that it’s in human beings, we could infect other species, as has already occurred with the tigers at the zoo in New York,” emphasizes the UNAM specialist.
Given the incompatibility of viruses carried by bats with human cells, this type of virus needed another ‘host’ so that it could be passed on to human beings. We still don’t know which species it was. What is true is that humans are responsible for spreading the new coronavirus.
“It’s we who are to blame, not the animals. There are viruses are everywhere, and they exist peacefully in bats, pangolins, pigs, and camels. We began to invade the places they inhabit and to manipulate them. These pandemics are the result of human behavior and the culture we have. It comes as no surprise. There’s been plenty of warning and it’s going to continue to happen,” says Carlos Arias Ortiz, a researcher from the UNAM Institute of Biotechnology and a specialist in the diagnosis and study of viral metagenomics in respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.
Arias explains that overpopulation, migrations, degradation of natural environments, wars, and international trade are human mobility factors that interfere with the habitats where unknown viruses are found. “It’s going to be difficult to reverse all those causes I mentioned. They’re on the rise. The global population will be bigger and we’re going to carry on invading our green areas,” he warns.
Although the panorama suggested by Arias requires extensive coordinated action by the world’s governments to prevent the impact being greater and continuing to affect its population, small actions are also important.
“This pandemic is teaching us to live in a much more sustainable way with much more respect for the environment. This is the world’s first wakeup call. It’s saying, ‘pay attention to how you’re using your environment,’” says Medellín.
One good way of beginning to reconcile ourselves with the planet and its different ecosystems is by learning about its species, looking after water, and responsibly consuming food of both plant and animal origin.
The scientists ask people not to be afraid of bats (the 140 species in Mexico represent 10% of global diversity), to look after them by not trespassing on their ecosystems, and to pay attention to hygiene and social distancing at this time of quarantine.