This Is How the Next Pandemic StartsReading Time: 9 minutes
The next pandemic could be caused by bats.
Ryan McNeill, from over at Reuters, has been thinking about bats for three years. Specifically, he’s been thinking about bats and pandemics. Back in 2020, like everyone else, McNeill was following news coverage about the origins of COVID-19—speculation that bats were the source of the virus. But when McNeill heard all this, he thought these explanations generated more questions than answers.
‘There was news coverage about the role of bats and the role of habitat disruption at the time,’ he said. ‘But from my perspective, it always lacked specificity about, well, where exactly is it happening and who is responsible for it happening?’
He couldn’t let these questions go, so he started learning everything he could about viruses, and about bats, too. ‘One of the things that’s amazing about bats is they have this enormous diversity. There’s a ton of different bat species. Bats make up something like a quarter of all the mammalian species on earth.’
All these different bat species—McNeill learned—were like flying Petri dishes for disease. Viruses could incubate inside them and wait for a chance to hop to humans. And over the past two decades, we humans have been moving closer and closer to what McNeill calls the ‘Bat Lands.‘ He knows this because he’s been mapping out these regions, mapping places that might end up as the cradle of the next pandemic.
‘1.8 billion people live in those areas. It’s about 1 in 5, depending on who’s counting, of every man, woman, and child on earth,’ he said. ‘It’s not the bats that are at fault. It is us encroaching where they are and where they’ve been since forever.’
On a recent episode of What Next, I spoke with McNeill about whether going inside the Bat Lands could help prevent the next outbreak. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Let’s start by defining a term that is really important: zoonotic spillover. What is it and why is it important?
Ryan McNeill: This is the term that scientists use to describe when a virus circulating among wildlife infects a human. There are lots of animals that are reservoirs for disease, but as far as bats go, they’ve been linked to some that we’ve all heard of: COVID. Ebola. The original SARS. Marburg. Nipah. Hendra.
That is like a greatest hits of infectious disease! A special thing about bats is that they can often harbor these viruses but stay healthy themselves. Scientists aren’t sure why that is. It could be that bats are too warmblooded for these germs to thrive. In any case, one of the key things to know about zoonotic spillover is that it isn’t just about chance encounters between humans and bats. Supercharged economic development rapidly accelerates the way novel infections spread.
If you look at our first story, which takes place in West Africa, we visit a mine in the Nimba Mountains in Liberia that is owned by ArcelorMittal, a Luxembourg-based mining giant. Testing of bats there as mining expansion was occurring found links to Ebola in bats that lived around the mining concession.
That’s not a great advertisement for working in that mine.
The mine is expanding, and they are Liberia’s No. 1 taxpayer. And recently, as that mine has expanded, the population has grown—an 80 percent increase, according to ArcelorMittal’s own documents, just over a decade. And that’s a common thing that happens with mines across West Africa. Not only are you going into remote areas, and you’re taking workers into those areas, but then you also draw people who are looking for work.
Just across the border from this mine, in 2013, bats triggered an Ebola outbreak that ended up killing thousands. The mine says it is mitigating its risk as best it can. Nevertheless, it’s in what McNeill’s team at Reuters dubbed a ‘jump zone’—that’s a place where humans and animals, especially bats, are interacting in new and potentially dangerous ways.
These jump zones have expanded by 16 percent during the last two decades. And they’ve expanded in some places, such as India, which are very heavily populated. India now has, by our estimates, half a billion people at risk that live within these areas. Now, conversely, you could look at somewhere like the Amazon, where we have an enormous rainforest that is incredibly biodiverse and being chewed up in enormous numbers, but you still don’t quite have that population that you do in West Africa or India or Southeast Asia. But when you build roads into forests and you start building towns, eventually growth follows.
I want to look a little deeper at how bat-to-humans zoonotic spillover works. And I wonder if we could focus in on one outbreak from a few years back, May of 2018, in India. That’s where a man named Muhammad Sabith got a fever. Can you tell me what happened?
Yeah, he lived in Kerala, which is in the southwest part of India. In 2018, he wakes up with a fever. He’s staying with his parents, so he goes to a community hospital. But over the next 24 hours, his symptoms worsen. He is vomiting, intense delirium, tremors, violent coughing. And doctors treated him with antibiotics and antivirals, and his lungs filled with fluid. His oxygen levels plunged, and he was dead two days after he became ill. And this was remarkable because it turned out to be Nipah, which is the first known appearance of Nipah in this part of India.
I’ve heard a little bit about the Nipah virus, but can you just explain what it is?
So, they know it comes from bats. It infects people when their eyes, nose, or mouth come into contact of fluids containing the virus, such as saliva, urine, blood, nasal or respiratory droplets. A really good example would be Bangladesh, where Nipah infections have become really quite common every year. And the reason, scientists have discovered, is largely driven by date palm sap. It is considered a delicacy in parts of Bangladesh. The tree is tapped, and the sap runs into these big canisters. And bats happened to love it for the same reason that Bangladeshis do.
It’s nice and sweet.
Yes. And they gorge on this.
And they end up peeing in the syrup.
That’s right. And so, this emergence in 2018 in India was a long way from Bangladesh. And it was a long way from Malaysia, where Nipah was first found.
It was kind of a mystery. Like, how did Nipah get here?
Yes. Kerala is still a mystery. And it’s struck two more times since then, in 2019 and 2021.
You did find that this man, Muhammad, and people he knew, they were picking up fruit from the ground, right? That bats had taken a bite out of.
Yes. And the scientists tested fruit and other things around the area, and they didn’t find Nipah. So, that’s part of the mystery. Now, the rain may have washed it away. Finding the exact point of spillover can sometimes be very difficult because by the time the scientists arrive, the trail has gone cold.
Your team did do something interesting to understand Muhammad’s case. You looked at satellite imagery. Can you explain why you did that and what you found?
Satellite imagery was key to this entire investigation. In the case of this 2018 outbreak, you can look at the satellite images over time, and you can see the houses popping up in this area that was once much less densely populated. One of the other interesting things that our model picked up on was a spike in risk right before Muhammad was infected.
You mean that looking back at the data, you could have shown, like, oh, there’s a higher risk of transmission at this point. Why was that?
When I went digging into why the model made that prediction for this particular area, it was because it had picked up on tree-cover loss in the area. And so I went and I looked at the satellite imagery, and there were a couple of little chunks of trees that had gone missing. It’s impossible, again, to know exactly what role, if any, that might have played in this particular incident, but there was habitat disruption going on in this area leading up to when Muhammad was infected.
Given that you found that, I wonder if scientists have started coming to you and saying, ‘Can we use this tool proactively to figure out where we need to manage risk better?’
Certainly what we hope is that this is a public service of sorts. One scientist named Barbara Hahn, who’s a disease ecologist at the Carey Institute in New York and specializes in using machine learning to predict the emergence of zoonotic diseases like this—she said, ‘What this shows is how risk is clumped. It’s not evenly distributed across the earth. And we can point to those places and say, ‘Perhaps we should focus there. Perhaps we should focus our prevention efforts or surveillance or science or funding, etc.’ ‘
The beauty of what you’ve done, which is mapping out these jump zones, is that you can see where future outbreaks could happen. Can you tick off what the hotspots are to you, looking at the next decade or so?
One that we should pay close attention to is Southeast Asia, and Laos in particular. We visited a cave in a place called Feuang District, this once remote area in Laos where workers were harvesting bat guano in these big caves. They take it, they shovel it.
You took photos, and there are just tons of bags of it. And people are doing this work barefoot.
Yes. And often they have cuts, burns, lesions from exposure to the ammonia that’s present because of the bat waste in these caves. But this place where they’re working is where scientists from the Pasteur Institute recently found bats with coronaviruses that are the closest match to SARS-CoV-2 that anybody has found in the wild. And so you have these workers in these caves doing this work, and one of the workers told us that they want to build a tourist site that lures tourists to come and see these bats every night, kind of like you’ve seen in Austin, Texas, where everybody goes and sits by the bridge to watch the bats come out. So, this is a really good example of a remote area that was once fairly disconnected that is now being connected. There’s a new high-speed rail line that goes very close to this area, as well as a brand-new expressway, the first one in Laos. Both of these are financed and built by China to speed goods that are being made in Laos to take them to China. And it also means people are moving on these trains.
What you’re talking about here is so important because the work that these people have been doing in this cave in Laos has been happening for a very long time, is my understanding. Is that right?
But what’s new is all of the development, the high-speed rail, the highways, the interest in tourism and luring people to these areas. These remote regions with some risk, that risk might have been able to be mitigated before, simply because they were remote. And that’s just not the case anymore.
That’s right. My colleague Grant Smith did a pretty interesting analysis to simulate what would happen if a virus emerged in this town in the Amazon called Altamira. Because of the air-travel connections in Brazil, and then Brazil around the rest of the world, this novel virus, according to this model, could infect 1.2 billion people, which dwarfs the spread of COVID-19, within six months. So yes, we are interconnected in a way that we never were before. And with that comes new risks.
McNeill‘s team has identified a few solutions when it comes to stopping zoonotic spillover. But naming the answers is a lot easier than putting them into practice. He actually compared the scope of the problem here—and its intractability—to climate change.
There are a few things that need to happen to help mitigate risks. One of those is governments have to identify and acknowledge the risks associated with these bat-rich areas. But then we’re also talking about more money. The World Bank and others have estimated $10 billion a year is needed to help developing countries cut risk and respond to outbreaks. Some might say that’s a lot of money, but how much did COVID-19 cost people around the world? Governments must mandate health risk assessments before approving projects to disrupt bat habitats. And so you’re talking about a couple of things, right? You’re talking about this battle between the global economy and this risk to humanity. And there’s some similarities to that with climate change.
What you’re saying is the larger countries, the richer countries may not want the risk of a pandemic, but that also means telling smaller countries, poorer countries: Stop economically expanding in this way, stop exploiting your resources, stop expanding into these regions where you’re going to come up against these bat populations. That’s a complicated thing to do.
Say you’re Liberia. This ArcelorMittal mine that I mentioned, they are Liberia’s largest taxpayer. So, if you’re the government of a country like Liberia, you’ve got choices to make.
Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.
It’s impossible to miss the fact that this viral spread is being driven by huge economic changes in vulnerable places. And your reporting team gives these examples of public health authorities locally doing things like broadcasting warnings to people in remote places who live near bats, urging them not to eat potentially contaminated food. And it just seems like putting all this pressure on the most vulnerable in this situation to help themselves rather than addressing the fact that, OK, there’s a giant mine here and maybe there’s going to be another mine down the street in a little bit.
It takes a lot of things for a spillover to happen. There are lots of risk factors. So, it’s about addressing as many possible things as you can. Maybe it’s ‘Don’t eat the fruit that has bite marks on it.’ Maybe it’s ‘Don’t drink date palm sap.’ It’s also about the international community funding surveillance and research and scientists to go into these areas and do the work that they need to do. It’s also an international treaty that requires biological impact assessments. So, maybe it’s about multiple layers of protection, taking action in multiple ways because these viruses can find different pathways. It just needs the right one.
Your story is obviously not a happy one, necessarily. There’s a lot of challenges your team has revealed. But I also do feel like there’s something sweet underlying the reporting, which is this connection that we have with the natural world around us, including bats. Some people could read the headline of your story and be like, ‘Oh, these bats are dirty, get them away from me.’ But I wonder if after all this reporting, you see it differently.
Well, bats are so important to our existence. They’re pollinators. They’re so important to the ecosystems. And what we do to them in their world—and the same goes for lots of other animals as well—can affect our own health.
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