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COVID-19 drives new threat to bats in China

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Science  27 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6485, pp. 1436
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb3088

In China, bats are traditionally symbols of good luck and happiness (1). There are more than 1400 species of bats worldwide, but more than half of them have unknown or decreasing population trends (2). Unfortunately, the suggestion that coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may have originated in bats (3) is putting them at increased risk.

As COVID-19 has spread, people in China have started requesting that hibernating bats in or near their houses be expelled (4, 5). Disturbing hibernating bats causes abnormal arousal patterns (6), which could lead to high bat mortality and potentially to the spread of other viruses. Moreover, the captured bats are being released into the wild, which is not their native habitat (4), posing further threats to their survival. These decisions are not based in fact; COVID-19 was linked to horseshoe bats (3), which do not hibernate in cities in China (7). The reputation of bats as virus carriers has even led to extreme suggestions of mass slaughter to protect public health (8). The exaggeration of bats' negative traits without regard for their positive ones could ultimately lead to their needless and intentional elimination.

Bats serve many critical roles for the ecosystem. They are biological—and economical—pesticides (9), and they contribute to the pollination and seed dispersal for many important plants (10). They are also excellent subjects for studies on healthy aging, cancer prevention, disease defense, biomimetic engineering, ecosystem functioning, and adaptive evolution (11). The need for public education about bats, including their positive and negative impacts, is urgent and vital to their conservation.


Embedded Image

COVID-19 has been linked to horseshoe bats, putting other bat species at risk.

PHOTO: MERLIN D. TUTTLE/SCIENCE SOURCE

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