Scientists pay tribute to the "main enemy of humanity"

Scientists pay tribute to the "main enemy of humanity"
Scientists pay tribute to the "main enemy of humanity"

This mammal often becomes a carrier of viruses that are fatal to humans. He is even called "the main enemy of mankind" - it was on bats that the blame for the epidemics of Ebola, SARS, and now the new coronavirus was blamed. Maybe we should just destroy them all? Or not?

The bat is blamed for epidemics of Ebola, SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, and now the new coronavirus. This flying mammal often becomes a carrier of deadly viruses for us, and it is even called "the main enemy of mankind." But bats are not the real culprit.

Oh no, really again!

This is what Johan Eklöf thought when he read about the new coronavirus in China. Since he had always followed how similar virus outbreaks developed in the past, he knew that articles in the press would begin to appear very soon.

“It only took a couple of days. This is how it happens every time."

Johan Eklöf is a Doctor of Zoology and the author of several books on bats. The bat is even tattooed on his left hand, which is not uncommon among such specialists.

Recently, genetic tests have shown that the new coronavirus is likely transmitted to humans from bats. At first, suspicion fell on the snake, but now scientists have discovered another villain. And this is not the first time he has been accused.

Ebola, SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Nipah Virus are all believed to come from bats. This is how the British The Sun titled the article when scientists realized that a new coronavirus could now be added to this list: “Winged executioner. This is why bats are the main enemy of man and the culprit behind millions of deaths due to the worst diseases in history."

On the most popular page of Swedish bat lovers on Facebook, someone wrote: "Okay, now all bats will definitely be killed."

But the disappearance of bats would not be the salvation of humanity - rather the opposite.

There are several reasons why bats carry so many dangerous viruses. First, from an evolutionary point of view, this animal is very ancient. Bats probably existed as far back as the dinosaur era, which ended 65 million years ago.

Throughout its long history, the bat has simply collected a large number of viruses.

You may remember from biology lessons that we humans also carry various viruses that we ourselves do not get sick from, for example, one of the types of herpes virus. There are a lot of viruses on earth, and they live in large numbers in people, animals, plants and other organisms.

But few people get along with them as well as bats.

Most of the deadly ailments that are transmitted from bats to humans in our time, the mice themselves do not get sick.

This is why, in terms of viruses, these animals are ideal partners. Åke Lundkvist, professor of virology at Uppsala University, says bats may have been carrying the new coronavirus for years.

Viruses such as SARS virus, Middle East respiratory syndrome, Nipah and Ebola change rapidly and easily adapt to new conditions, moving from one species of animal to another.

“But they can live for millennia or even millions of years in their natural hosts before moving on to another organism, which is often influenced by human activities,” says Åke Lundqvist.

There is another reason why bats spread infection so well.

Since bats are the only flying mammals, they quickly spread over large areas. In addition, they often live near people.

In some parts of Africa, bat meat is eaten in the form of the so-called "bushmeat" (usually jerky meat of wild animals in Africa and America, approx. Transl.). Because of this, the infection easily passes from animals to humans.

In countries like China and Vietnam, bats are also eaten. One theory is that the SARS epidemic in 2003 began in a food market in China, where bats infected the civet and spread the virus to humans.

Since we do not have much contact with bats in Sweden, we have a much lower risk of infection. But at the same time, studies of viruses in Swedish bats have not received enough attention, says Åke Lundqvist.

He and his colleagues are launching a project to search for viral sequences in Swedish bats using modern genetic technologies.

It is possible that they will make a number of unpleasant discoveries. As early as 12 years ago, there were signs that Swedish bats are also carrying some of the world's worst diseases.

Blood-sucking vampires, creatures of darkness, enchanted animals. Since ancient times, bats have been treated as the offspring of evil. Myths spread that they were attracted by white sheets, that they were deliberately entangled in their hair, and that they were in every way connected with the devil.

Not to mention disgust. A few weeks ago, Chinese blogger Wang Mengyun posted a video of her eating bat soup, but she had to quickly remove it after she received death threats.

Johan Eklöf, doctor of zoology with a tattoo of a bat, and other scientists believe that our image of a bat is based on misunderstandings and prejudices. In fact, we need to thank these animals.

“One bat can eat up to 3000 insects in one evening. But this is very useful for us."

Only insectivorous bats live in Sweden, which perform an important function, eating small parasites that attack our crops. Research shows that bats around the world save agriculture several billion crowns a year by protecting crops from pests.

Instead of being afraid of bats, we should learn something from them, says Johan Eklöf.

"Bats seem to be cancer-free and they are good at resisting a variety of viruses and diseases."

Twelve years ago, it was discovered that among Swedish mice there are individuals with antibodies to one of the varieties of rabies. With a high degree of probability, this indicates that this disease is common among animals in Sweden, and people can become infected with it.

Louise Treiberg Berndtsson, Deputy Chief Physician at the State Veterinary Institute, was involved in this study. According to her, there is no cause for concern.

“In my opinion, one should be happy if bats live in your house. The only thing: if you find a bat on the ground that seems to be feeling unwell, do not touch it with your hands, use gloves."

She used to think that bats were pretty scary.

“But when I worked with them for a bit, my attitude changed. They are very cute little animals that occupy the most important place in the ecosystem."

Bats have long warned that humans make life harder for these animals. A third of all bat species found in Sweden are endangered, according to the latest version of the Red Book. This is the case in many parts of the world.

One of the reasons is facade lighting, which has recently become more and more popular. It scares away animals. Building highways and draining swamps also make life difficult for them.

The author of the previously mentioned article in The Sun asks a rhetorical question: "Given the enormous number of lives that bats claim around the world, why should we help them?"

But this is not the case.

The real villain behind the spread of the coronavirus and other deadly diseases is always one - and that's ourselves.

If man didn’t keep animals in a confined space, like in the food markets of Wuhan, didn’t eat them half-baked, as in some parts of Africa, didn’t catch them for medical purposes, as in Bolivia, we would have avoided many viruses.

“It is no coincidence that almost all flu strains come from East Asia. The virus begins to spread from animal to human under special circumstances,”says Louise Treiberg Berndtsson.

Perhaps we should learn a lesson from the latest coronavirus epidemic and the bat's role in it.

If animals harm us, people, most often they are not to blame for this, but ourselves. Bears, tigers and alligators kill a number of people every year, but most often because people push them too hard, get too close and behave inadvertently.

In the future, however, bats will probably be finally left alone. Twenty years ago, when Johan Ecklöf was just starting his career as a bat expert, he often received calls and asked how to get rid of these animals in the house or yard.

“Then they were considered pests. But now more and more people are calling and asking how to take care of bats. So the changes have really happened."

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