postpass postpass Virus hunters By catching bats researchers hope to stop the next pandemic – BLN

Virus hunters By catching bats researchers hope to stop the next pandemic

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 they hope will help the world avoid a pandemic similar to Covid-19, which has killed more than 3.26 million people.

The Japanese-funded model will be developed over the next three years by the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), which hopes the bats will help in predicting the dynamics of a coronavirus by analysing factors such as climate, temperature and ease of spread, to humans included.

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

Scientists wear personal protective equipment to protect themselves from exposure to bats, as they set up a mist net in front of a building with a bat roost


‘As we continue to gain close contact with wildlife, we are deliberately exposing ourselves to diseases and danger. If we cannot stop this, we might as well develop measures of control to reduce the impacts of possible future outbreaks, at the very least. That is why this research is important. By having the baseline data on the nature and occurrence of the potentially zoonotic virus in bats, we can somehow predict possible outbreaks and establish suitable, sound, and science-based health protocols,’ says bat ecologist Kirk Taray.


“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 extract 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.

Phillip Alviola and Edison Cosico, an administrative aide at the UPLB Museum of Natural History, sit and wait beside a mist net


Phillip Alviola checks the wing of a bat that was captured from a building at the UPLB


He also takes an oral swab from the captured bats


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,” says Edison Cosico, who is assisting 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.”

Ryan Llamas, a field assistant, stands by a mist net at Mount Makiling


A bat, caught on a mist net set up by scientists in front of a building with a bat roost, is captured at UPLB


‘I get to teach students and remain a student myself. It’s fun. Being in the field even for 24 hours beats being in the office from eight to five,’ Cosico said.


The bulk of those caught are horseshoe bats known to harbour coronaviruses, including the closest known relative of the novel coronavirus.

Horseshoe bats figure in two of the scenarios of World Health Organization 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 they can be devastating if transmitted to humans or other animals.

Deadly viruses to have originated from bats include Ebola and other coronaviruses, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers).

Phillip Alviola attempts to catch a bat that was caught on a mist net in front of UPLB


‘With the ongoing pandemic, there is more caution taken into consideration while studying bats. Several measures and protocols are established to protect both the researchers and the bats. Also, the community quarantine and travel restrictions added difficulty especially in accessing potential areas of study,’ says Kirk Taray.


Human exposure and closer interaction with wildlife mean the risk of disease transmission is now higher than ever, says 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,” he says.

Photos by Eloisa Lopez


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