There have been more than 200,000 deaths from the recent COVID-19 outbreak, which is said to have originated from the Wuhan Seafood Market in China. Scientists believe the virus is likely to have come from bats, before possibly spreading to pangolins and making the jump to humans inside the wet market – reported to have stocked 120 wild animals across 75 species including bats, dogs, pangolins, turtles and snakes. But, it is not the first outbreak of its kind to be linked with bats, and may not be the last, according to the producer of a new SciShow mini-documentary on the mammals.
Stefan Chin said in March: “Bats help us out in all sorts of ways, they pollinate a lot of plants, help regrow forests and control pests.
“But, they are also somewhat notorious for being flying sacks of germs.
“You might have noticed that with all the talk of zoonotic diseases that’s been happening lately – those are diseases that are passed to humans from other animals.
“While bats aren’t to blame for everything, they have played a role in the transmission of at least 11 viruses, possibly 12 counting COVID-19.”
Research shows that disturbing animal habitats is what causes the transfer of zoonotic disease to humans
Bats have unique immune systems, which work overtime to help them fly, but this makes them susceptible to carrying more illnesses.
Mr Chin explained why disturbing their natural habitat is a risk to humans.
He added: “These diseases aren’t the bat’s fault, of course, if anything they are ours.
“Research shows that disturbing animal habitats is what causes the transfer of zoonotic disease to humans.
“Bats, in particular, do carry a lot of viruses and that’s because they have a unique immune system.
“Their immune systems are so special that what we learn from them could someday help us treat a wide variety of conditions, from cancer to diabetes.”
Mr Chin went on to list numerous diseases that are suspected to be linked with bats in the past.
He added: “Bats have weird immune systems because they fly, unlike gliding, flapping requires a huge amount of energy, so they have evolved ways to kick their cellular fuel production into high-gear – by putting their mitochondria – which turns food into fuel – into overdrive.
“But there’s a catch. When mitochondria convert nutrients into energy, they also create byproducts called reactive oxygen species, which the immune system uses to kill off bacterial invaders.
“But that leaves them open to all kinds of pathogens, at the turn of the 21st century, scientists discovered that bats act as a reservoir for a lot of viruses that are extremely dangerous to humans.
“This includes filoviruses, which cause hemorrhagic fevers, like Marburg or Ebola, henipaviruses like Hendra or Nipah and, of course, coronavirus.”
The bats themselves rarely get sick, due to their unique immune systems, but this means they can be a silent spreader to other animals.
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Mr Chin continued: “Bats are also suspected of giving us other infections in the past, like mumps, measles and hepatitis B.
“Even though bats are widely infected with notorious diseases, they don’t actually seem to get sick from them, the virus can be in their body, but they don’t have symptoms.
“But, even a quick suppression of a virus can mean it stays around in a group of bats as they huddle together when the roost and they fly around in the same areas as bats from other colonies.
“There’s a good chance that, during that window, it will spread it to another bat, meaning that each bat may only host a virus for a short time, but it can linger in the population.”
While wildlife conservationists have praised the recent move from China to ban the illegal wildlife trade, some fear that things will return back to normal within months.
This could lead to another viral outbreak in the future, so now is the time for the law to be permanent to protect the world from another pandemic.
Susannah Birkwood, from the WWF, told Express.co.uk: “The Chinese government announced a ban on the hunting, husbandry, trade and consumption of wild animals as food on February 24 to safeguard people’s lives and health.
“The WWF supports this decision, although the ban could have gone further, to include the sale of some aquatic species, and the sale of animal parts for medicinal purposes.
“However, evidence suggests that strengthening legislation alone will not stop the illegal wildlife trade if enforcement of regulations remains weak and demand persists.
“We strongly encourage the Chinese government to make this suspension permanent and focus on the implementation of the legislation.
“We will achieve very little if everything goes back to what was previously considered normal six months from now.”
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