Once and for All: No, We Didn’t Get the Coronavirus From Bats

Let’s start from the punch line: Bats did not give us the latest coronavirus. Nor were its notorious cousins SARS-1 or MERS, or even the ebola virus, transmitted from bats to humans. So what did happen?

A distant relative of the current coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was isolated in a bat in China. Genetic analyses that looked for similarity between the virus in the bat and SARS-CoV-2, and factored in the theoretical pace at which the virus mutates, estimated that the two viruses parted ways between five and 50 years ago. In other words, one possibility is that about five years ago, the bat coronavirus managed to infect some other different animal – we don’t know which one at this time. In that next animal, the coronavirus lived and mutated over those five years, and one day infected a human for the first time. There are other hypotheses as well.

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Science doesn’t yet know where the coronavirus lurked in wait for the past few years, or when it became dangerous to people, or when the first person was infected, nor do we know which animal infected that first human. The only thing science knows for sure is that the coronavirus isolated from the Chinese bat cannot have infected humans and isn’t dangerous to them.

This fact was published two months ago, based on the genetic sequences of the bat and human viruses. This is also true in the cases of SARS, MERS and ebola – despite repeated efforts to locate these viruses in bats, all that researchers found were similar viruses, or evidence of previous exposure that doesn’t mean they carried the virus routinely and certainly not that they passed it to humans, despite reports that have appeared in the general press (including in Haaretz Hebrew edition, on April 19).

Bat Out of Hell

Why do bats get such bad press in connection with viruses? In recent years there have been increasingly strident claims that bats carry zoonotic viruses, which can infect humans. But there are serious scientists who disagree with this and argue that bats are no different than other mammals in the number of zoonotic viruses that they carry, certainly if you consider the large number of species in the bat family. Around a fifth of all the world’s mammals are bats.

There are several batty characteristics that render them “suspect” when it comes to viruses. Their ability to fly, their presence in all parts of the world, their large colonies and the crowding in which they live; their long lives; and their proximity to humans all make them ostensibly suited to transmitting diseases.