'Virus hunters' net bats in bid to avert next pandemic

Philippine researchers looking at bat viruses that have the potential to jump to humans

Left: Each bat is held steady by the head as a tiny swab is inserted into its mouth. The researchers are trying to find out which of the more than 1,300 species and 20 families of bats are most susceptible to infections and why. Above: Research team
Bat ecologist Kirk Taray detangling a bat caught in a net in Los Banos in the Philippine province of Laguna last month. Researchers wear protective gear when in contact with the bats, as a precaution against catching viruses. PHOTO: REUTERS
Left: Each bat is held steady by the head as a tiny swab is inserted into its mouth. The researchers are trying to find out which of the more than 1,300 species and 20 families of bats are most susceptible to infections and why. Above: Research team
Each bat is held steady by the head as a tiny swab is inserted into its mouth. The researchers are trying to find out which of the more than 1,300 species and 20 families of bats are most susceptible to infections and why. PHOTO: REUTERS
Left: Each bat is held steady by the head as a tiny swab is inserted into its mouth. The researchers are trying to find out which of the more than 1,300 species and 20 families of bats are most susceptible to infections and why. Above: Research team
Research team leader Phillip Alviola (left), who has studied bat viruses for more than a decade, taking a swab from a bat as Mr Taray noted down information, at Mount Makiling in Los Banos earlier this month.PHOTO: REUTERS
Left: Each bat is held steady by the head as a tiny swab is inserted into its mouth. The researchers are trying to find out which of the more than 1,300 species and 20 families of bats are most susceptible to infections and why. Above: Research team
Professor Alviola (left) and Mr Taray setting up a mist net near a bat roost at Mount Makiling last month.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS BANOS (Philippines) • Researchers wearing headlamps and protective suits race to untangle the claws and wings of bats caught up in a big net after dark in the Philippine province of Laguna.

The tiny animals are carefully placed in cloth bags to be taken away, measured and swabbed, with details logged and saliva and faecal matter collected for analysis before they are returned to the wild.

The 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 has 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 the bats will help in predicting the dynamics of a coronavirus through an analysis of factors such as climate, temperature and ease of spread, including to humans.

"What we're trying to look into are other strains of coronavirus that have the potential to jump to humans," said ecologist Phillip Alviola - the leader of the group - who has studied bat viruses for more than a decade.

"If we know the virus itself and we know where it came from, we know how to isolate that virus geographically."

Beyond work in the laboratory, the research requires lengthy field trips, involving traipsing for hours through thick rainforest and precarious night hikes on mountains covered in rocks, tree roots, mud and moss.

The group also targets bat roosts in buildings, setting up mist nets before dusk to catch bats and extracting samples by the light of torches.

Each bat is held steady by the head as researchers insert tiny swabs into their mouths and record wingspans with plastic rulers, to try to see which of the more than 1,300 species and 20 families of bats are most susceptible to infections and why.

Researchers wear protective suits, masks and gloves when in contact with the bats, as a precaution against catching viruses.

"It's really scary these days," said Mr Edison Cosico, who is assisting Professor Alviola.

"You never know if the bat is already a carrier.

"What we're after is finding out if there are any more viruses from bats that can be transmitted to humans. We'll never know if the next one is just like Covid."

The bulk of those caught are horseshoe bats known to harbour coronaviruses, including the closest-known relative of the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus.

Horseshoe bats figure in two of the scenarios considered by World Health Organisation experts investigating the origins of the Sars-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.

Host species, such as bats, usually display no symptoms of the pathogens, although these can be devastating if transmitted to humans or other animals.

Deadly viruses that have originated from bats include Ebola and other coronaviruses, the severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome.

Humans' exposure to and closer interaction with wildlife means the risk of disease transmission is now higher than ever, said bat ecologist Kirk Taray.

"By having baseline data on the nature and occurrence of the potentially zoonotic virus in bats, we can somehow predict possible outbreaks."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2021, with the headline ''Virus hunters' net bats in bid to avert next pandemic'. Subscribe