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Tracking the next pandemic... in Bohol bat caves

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 20, 2020 4:00 pm

"It's very frustrating to have one of the leading epidemiologists in the world, Dr. Anthony Fauci, being called an idiot by the US president," says bat biologist Dr. Kendra Phelps.

What we quickly learn about Dr. Kendra Phelps, bat biologist and EcoHealth Alliance scientist, is that she really likes bats. She’s got bats in flight as her Zoom background, and she spent time studying the flying mammals in Bohol bat caves. It’s a passion that seeks an answer to one of the planet’s most pressing concerns: pandemics. And not just COVID-19, but the next nightmare to come.

“Coronavirus was just the wakeup call,” warns the narrator of the upcoming National Geographic special Virus Hunters. “There’s something out there, even more deadly and highly contagious, just waiting.” Layered in PPE, the scientists in Virus Hunters visit bat caves and wet markets in Africa, Asia, and other spots to trace which infectious diseases are spreading from species to species. It’s always a race against time, against scientific skepticism, and against our own worst human impulses.

Dr. Phelps fills us in on the current battles.

PHILIPPINE STAR: Do you think that the coronavirus vaccine that’s about to come out will be the “silver bullet,” and if so, why?

KENDRA PHELPS: Well, we just have to be really hopeful.

It's hard to tell because this is the first vaccine for coronavirus that we've developed for humans today, so it's definitely necessary to get us out of the weeds, because so far we're not doing too well with public health measures that are in place right now.

 Biologist Dr. Kendra Phelps has studied bats in the Philippines for clues to virus transmission. “That’s my passion, really.”

Can countries like the US really develop herd immunity or is that the worst-case scenario?

No, herd immunity is not a possibility. That means you need to have between 70 to 80 percent of the population infected and recovered, and there needs to be long-term antibody production and maintenance to prevent reinfection. Currently, we don't even know how long we have antibiotic resistance. So we've seen a few cases of people being re-infected just months after recovering from an infection.

How frustrating is it to be right about viruses, knowing what you know, and face the kind of science backlash that we’ve seen, particularly in the US?

It's extremely frustrating to have one of the leading epidemiologists in the world, Dr. Anthony Fauci, being called an idiot by the US president.

So the lack of trust in science is going to be a major hindrance to us. I think it'll increase the number of anti-vaxxers because, depending on (what happens after) the election, that can really change. It's been very politicized in the United States. So I think that could have a major effect on how we pull through this pandemic situation in the US.

You researched bats in Bohol. Why are bats particularly brilliant at transmitting disease from animal to animal?

I don't think they're doing it intentionally, I don't think it's on their agenda. But I think that occurs because of human activities — the hunting trade and consumption of wildlife species.

So even though it's against the law in the Philippines, there's the Wildlife Act, it hasn't stopped the underground hunting and trade of bats. As you might know, a lot of times when you have fiestas or parties, there's often exotic meat that's served and bats commonly are on that menu, and you try to figure out “How did you get ahold of those? Where are you acquiring them from?” and it's always through some underground routes, so the consumption of that has really driven that route for transmission and to humans.

Have you ever encountered the so-called megabats? The golden crown flying fox bat, or these huge species here? What's your take on them?

They have always been extirpated (made locally extinct) because of human hunting. So I would say humans are a major threat to them. They are just trying to disperse seeds and regenerate forests and pollinate different plants — so a fruit like durian, for example, that’s dependent on a fruit-eating bat that lives in caves, which are common throughout the area. There are some 500 different plant species that are dependent upon bats for pollination, so without those you wouldn’t have durian — you wouldn’t have tequila, either, actually. (Editor’s Note: A certain long-nosed bat in Mexico is largely responsible for pollinating agave plants, used to make tequila. That’s why there’s a bat on the Bacardi label.)

Did you have one particular experience in the Philippines that stuck out to you in terms of studying bats?

Um, I met my (Filipino) husband that way. (Laughs) But, you know, the diversity of bats is high there because the Philippines is geographically very distant from most other countries. They have a lot of species of bats — some 77 species — and probably half of those are only found in the Philippines. So it was very interesting to catch these bats that my colleagues will probably never see, because they’d have to go to the Philippines.

Are you 100-percent sure it was bats from a Wuhan wet market that started COVID-19, and not a laboratory?

So I can confirm to you that it was definitely not laboratory-derived virus that escaped the highest containment laboratory you can possibly build. That's just not a possibility. But we've also done genetic studies to show that this virus is very closely related to another SARS-like virus found in bats. However, we don't know how it got from bats into humans with the other coronaviruses that we've seen such as SARS and MERS — there's an intermediate host.

So with SARS, which is the most similar, it's the wet markets, these live animal markets where the bats are housed and cages piled on top of other wildlife species that would never come into contact with each other in the wild, but because humans are trapping them, trading them, butchering them in these markets, that's where you can have disease transfer, not only from bats to other wildlife but then from those species into humans that purchase them and consume them.

I spoke with Dr. Jane Goodall earlier in the pandemic, she pointed out that we’re already in a mass extinction event right now, and it's largely manmade. So, is there a way to reverse the course that we're on?

Yeah, I think our best chance is to start conserving more wild places, stop encroaching on them, stop cutting down forests and actually focus on reforestation, and really enforcing laws around wildlife protection, not just on paper, but actual enforcement.

Also, if we stop hunting, killing and trading these wildlife species. That will also help, because that's a major threat to a lot of wildlife species. Hunting, plus deforestation, is the number one driver.

So for the taste of monkeys or wild game meat, we’re driving our own path to extinction?

It's like this drive for exotic meats. A lot of the species that are hunted in the tropics are exported to developed countries for the exotic meat trade. I have a couple of friends who are from Belgium; I didn't realize that Brussels Airport was one of the largest hubs for wildlife meat.

So you get this demand for exotic meats, even in Indonesia. Their Lonely Planet guide has a section for markets where you can go to for exotic meats. Bats, rodents, snakes, you name it, it's there.

Someone mentions in Virus Hunters that it’s “one of the world's worst jobs.” How did you get into this?

I started studying bats about 20 years ago, and it wasn't related to disease. I consider myself an ecologist and a conservation biologist. So I got into studying diseases in bats because I noticed a strong correlation between human disturbance that threatens bats, but it also opens up opportunities for the transmission of viruses.

Bats are fascinating. They have a very unique immune system, which we’re only now starting to learn about — how they can tolerate infection from these pathogens and not show any symptoms. I could see the pandemics, particularly if they're associated with bats, can be a threat to bat conservation, and that's my passion, really.

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Virus Hunters, featuring Dr. Kendra Phelps, will air on National Geographic channel this Dec. 3 at 9 p.m. Other related shows include Breakthrough: Virus Hunters (Nov. 26, 9 p.m.), and Going Viral: From Ebola to COVID-19 (Dec. 10, 9 p.m.).

Banner caption Breakthrough: Virus Hunters premieres on National Geographic, Nov. 26, 9 p.m.