As the world wrestles with both treating current patients while racing to find a cure for COVID-19, biologists worldwide are focusing their attention on an unlikely COVID connection: bats. Long misunderstood, feared, and underappreciated, bats just might be patient zero for the virus-- scientists widely believe that the virus evolved in bats and jumped to humans either directly or through an intermediate host, likely a Chinese mammal of some kind.
To explore this connection, the Schuylkill Center offers an online program on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. It’s part of our Thursday Night Live series, a weekly event this fall, and here we will be joined by biology professor Dr. DeeAnn Reeder, a bat expert studying the link between COVID and bats. Here’s your unique chance to talk to a bat researcher directly.
Reeder and her team at Bucknell University have received a rapid research grant from the National Science Foundation to carefully examine 240 samples of bat tissue from Reeder’s extensive collection, analyzing the DNA to better understand this family of pandemic-causing viruses.
During the Thursday event, she’ll share her research and answer your many bat questions.
While her samples likely will not have the COVID-19 coronavirus, Reeder expects the tissues to contain many other coronaviruses, as this group of viruses likely evolved in bats. But when these bats were alive, they were completely healthy with none of the many side effects that have infected millions worldwide, killing so many. What can we learn about bats from studying these viruses?
“We think,” Reeder told me via email recently, “that bats are able to carry these pathogens without consequence because they are immunologically ‘tolerant’ of them. They have co-evolved with these pathogens for thousands of years and in doing so, have perfected the art of controlling infection without allowing the immune response to overshoot. To the best of our understanding, for those people who become very sick (and even die) from COVID, their immune systems have gone berserk; they have over-responded, and their immune response contributes to their death rather than rescuing them from the virus. By understanding how bats do this, we hope to be able to suggest drug targets for specific immune pathways that could help people. We’re using bats as a tool to tell us ‘How do you survive?’,” Reeder said.
Hence her rapid grant from the federal government, as the planet is fast-tracking possible cures.
I asked her why bats were singled out as the animal from which COVID jumped. “Much remains to be discovered here,” she told me, “ but the closest genetic relative to human COVID has been found in a bat. Given this, and the known linkage between bats and SARS-CoV (the first one, the one that caused the SARS pandemic in 2002-2003), bats are heavily implicated as carrying at least an ancestor of the current human virus. Whether an intermediate host of some sort will eventually be implicated remains to be seen. Likewise as to for whether, in this instance, spillover occurred in a ‘wet’ or ‘live-animal’ market in China.”
Many environmental activists in China and worldwide worry about Chinese wet markets, large open-air markets where wild animals of all kinds are sold, some sadly endangered like pangolins. It has been widely speculated that the bat was being sold in one of these markets as food. (Google “wet markets” if you are curious, but be forewarned-- the photos are not pretty.)
Reeder will also highlight another aspect of the pandemic-- that preservation of intact ecosystems might reduce the possibility of pandemics like this. It is the deforestation of habitats worldwide that puts humans into contact with novel viruses-- like this and Ebola--that, never having evolved with or come into contact with our species, wreak havoc once they do. “Spillover” of a disease from animals to people “is always a human activity problem,” she offered. “Habitat destruction and human encroachment are key players in driving these spillovers.”
When noted 19th century naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the world” all those years ago, he was certainly not considering pandemics-- but turns out truer words may never have been written. We need wild areas as buffers to shield us from spillovers; as we encroach on forests, pandemics like COVID become increasingly likely. There’s a sobering thought.
In addition, Reeder will share the latest on white-nose syndrome, the fungus that has been decimating bat populations across North America, including Pennsylvania. “Little brown bats used to be our most common bast here, but white-nose syndrome wiped out about 90% of them in our state. We now have evidence for resistance in surviving bats, which is good news, but recovery is slow. It will take decades.”
To participate in this important Bat-COVID conversation, go to the Schuylkill Center’s website at www.schuylkillcenter.org, and register for the event-- you will be sent a Zoom link. The evening is free.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at email@example.com.