Coronavirus: Exterminating bats blamed for spreading Covid-19 would increase risk of further diseases, warn experts

Stop the Wildlife Trade: ‘As we’ve globalised and invaded natural habitats – that’s what’s created the increased risk, not the animals themselves’

Jane Dalton
Friday 24 April 2020 21:03 BST
Bats may have hosted the virus, but it's believed that human interference made it spread
Bats may have hosted the virus, but it's believed that human interference made it spread

Exterminating colonies of bats because they were the source of Covid-19 would be pointless and could even expose people to even greater risk of new viruses, experts are warning.

Killing wildlife in unhygienic conditions anywhere could allow new pathogens to breed and intensify viruses in surviving animals, it’s claimed.

Scientists believe that Covid-19 originated in horseshoe bats at a live animal slaughter market in China, passing to humans via pangolin.

As a result, while the pandemic spread, people in China started asking for hibernating bats in or near their houses to be destroyed.

And in northern Peru last month, locals had planned to attack and kill a colony of 200 bats with torches, a local website reported. Wildlife authorities intervened to rescue the animals and moved them to safety in a cave far from the town.

In San Francisco, residents have been asking experts how to trap or kill bats, thinking it would prevent the spread of Covid-19 and save lives.

But wildlife campaigners say such action not only runs the risk of concentrating pathogens in remaining animal populations, but is also replicating the disastrous behaviour that created coronaviruses in the first place.

The call comes as The Independent is campaigning to end the wildlife trade at the heart of the pandemic, and to help prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Mark Jones, a vet and head of policy at the Born Free Foundation, said that while wild animals may be the source, they are not to blame for the transmission of the virus to people.

We all carry viruses all the time, and normally animals are not made sick by viruses they carry, he said.

“But viruses can replicate very rapidly in the right circumstances. When animals are stressed, their immune systems are suppressed, allowing viruses to replicate and mutate so they can infect new hosts such as people.

“When wild animals of different species are captured or farmed and put together in large numbers in awful conditions, where they’re highly stressed and sold in wildlife markets, in close proximity to each other and to people that’s where the biggest risk of these viruses mutating into a form that can infect people exists,” he said.

“Exterminating bat roosts won’t do anything to reduce the risk of another human pandemic. We can’t go round trying to eliminate the risk by exterminating animals in the wild.”

Christian Walzer, executive director of health programmes for the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, said: “Beyond the simple fact that persecuting wildlife further perturbs nature and enhances spillover events while also increasing the prevalence of pathogens in the remnant individuals, it is really important to clearly understand that local wildlife provides essential services to humans that far outweigh any perceived risk.

“For example, the often vilified bats provide invaluable pest control and pollination services in the order of tens of millions of dollars in North America alone.”

Scientists also believe the increasing frequency of new diseases such as HIV and Ebola has been driven by humans interfering with wildlife.

Dr Jones said modern lifestyles including global travel also played a role in virus transmission, because while people living close to animal populations would have developed some degree of immunity, outsiders would be more susceptible.

“The emerging infectious diseases have become epidemics and pandemics over recent decades as we’ve globalised and invaded natural habitats through development and urbanisation and this massive exploitation of and trade in wildlife – that’s what’s created the increased risk – it’s not the animals themselves.”

Having bat roosts near your home does not cause people any greater risk, he said, and horseshoe bats don’t roost around buildings anyway.

“This kind of knee-jerk persecution of animals that are perceived by some people to be a risk is really problematic.”

One study has found Covid-19 could have been transmitted to humans by stray dogs that had eaten bat meat.

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