By catching bats, these ‘virus hunters’ hope to stop the next pandemic | The bigger picture


Researchers in headlights and protective suits race to untangle the claws and wings of bats caught in a large net after dark in the Philippine province of Laguna.

The tiny animals are carefully placed in cloth bags for carrying, measuring and cleaning, with details recorded and saliva and fecal matter collected for analysis before being returned to the wild.

. Laguna, Philippines. Reuters / Eloisa López

“As we continue to get close contact with wildlife, we deliberately expose ourselves to disease and hazards. If we can’t stop this, we could also develop control measures to reduce the impacts of possible future outbreaks, at a minimum. That’s 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 appropriate, robust and science-based health protocols, “he said. bat ecologist Kirk Taray. .

Beyond work in the laboratory, the research requires long field trips, which involve walking for hours through thick rainforest and precarious night walks in mountains covered with rocks, tree roots, mud and moss.

The group also targets bat shelters in buildings, setting up mist nets before dark to catch bats and draw samples by torchlight.

. Laguna, Philippines. Reuters / Eloisa López

Alviola holds a bat captured on Mount Makiling.

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

Researchers wear protective suits, masks and gloves when they come into contact with bats, as a precaution against catching viruses.

. Laguna, Philippines. Reuters / Eloisa López

“I can teach students and still be a student myself. It’s fun. Being in the field for even 24 hours is better than being in the office from eight to five,” Cosico said.

“It’s really scary these days,” said Edison Cosico, who is helping Alviola. “You never know if the bat is already a carrier.

“What we want is to find out if there are more bat viruses that can be transmitted to humans. We will never know if the next one is like COVID.”

Most of those caught are horseshoe bats known to harbor coronavirus, including the closest known relative of the new coronavirus.

. Laguna, Philippines. Reuters / Eloisa López

“With the ongoing pandemic, more caution is being taken into consideration when studying bats. Various measures and protocols are put in place to protect both researchers and bats. In addition, community quarantine and travel restrictions added difficulties, especially in access to possible study areas, “said Taray.

Exposure from humans and closer interaction with wildlife meant that the risk of disease transmission was 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.”

PHOTO EDITION MARIKA KOCHIASHVILI; WRITE TO MARTIN PETTY, EDIT KARISHMA SINGH; DESIGN JULIA DALRYMPLE

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