Los Banos, Philippines, March 24
Researchers wearing headlamps and protective suits rush to unravel the claws and wings of bats caught in a large net after dark in the Philippine province of Laguna.
Small animals are carefully placed in cloth bags to be taken away, measured and cleaned, with details recorded and saliva and feces collected for analysis before being returned to the wild.
Researchers call themselves the “virus hunters,” tasked with catching thousands of bats to develop a simulation model that they hope will help the world avoid a pandemic similar to COVID-19, which killed nearly 2.8 million people.
The Japanese-funded model will be developed over the next three years by the University of the Philippines Los Banos, which hopes bats will help predict the dynamics of a coronavirus by analyzing factors such as climate, temperature and ease of spread to humans. included.
“What we’re trying to look at are other strains of coronavirus that have the potential to jump to humans,” said environmentalist Phillip Alviola, the group’s leader, who has studied bat viruses for over a decade. “If we know the virus itself and know where it came from, we know how to isolate it geographically.”
Beyond laboratory work, research requires long field trips, involving treks for hours through thick rainforest and precarious night hikes over mountains covered with rocks, tree roots, mud. and foam.
The group also targets bat roosts in buildings, setting up misting nets before dusk to catch bats and extract samples by torchlight.
Each bat is held firmly by its head as researchers insert tiny swabs into their mouths and record the wingspan with plastic rulers, to try to see which of the more than 1,300 species and 20 families of bat mice are the most susceptible to infections and why.
Researchers wear protective suits, masks and gloves when in contact with bats, as a precaution against virus capture.
“It’s really scary these days,” said Edison Cosico, who assists Alviola. “You never know if the bat is already a carrier.
“What we want is to know if there are other bat viruses that can be transmitted to humans. We’ll never know if the next one is like COVID. ”
The majority of those captured are horseshoe bats known to harbor coronaviruses, including the closest known relative of the new coronavirus.
Horseshoe bats feature in two of the World Health Organization expert scenarios investigating the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
Host species, such as bats, generally show no symptoms of pathogens, although they can be devastating if transmitted to humans or other animals.
Deadly viruses from bats include Ebola and other coronaviruses, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
Exposure of humans and closer interaction with wildlife meant the risk of disease transmission was now higher than ever, bat ecologist Kirk Taray said.
“By having basic data on the nature and occurrence of the potentially zoonotic virus in bats, we can kind of predict possible epidemics.” Reuters