“It turns out that the answer to that question has to do with the bat’s status as the world’s only flying mammal.”
“During flight, a bat’s body temperature spikes to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Its heart rate can surge to more than 1,000 beats per minute.”
“For most land mammals, these are signals that would trigger death,” says Linfa Wang, who studies bat viruses at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. But bats live it every day.”
Wang says it seems that bats have developed special immune systems to deal with the stress of flying.
“Their bodies make molecules that other mammals don’t have, which help repair cell damage. And their systems don’t overreact to infections, which keeps them from falling ill from the many viruses they carry (and also prevents conditions like diabetes and cancer).”
“This shows that it’s not always the virus itself but the body’s response to the virus that can make us sick, explains Wang.”
“Olival at EcoHealth Alliance says let’s be clear: it’s not the bats’ fault that people are getting diseases. “They’ve just sort of coevolved with these viruses and these bugs that basically don’t cause them any harm.”‘
“The problem, he says, is when the viruses jump to new species. And it’s human activity that makes that likely to happen.”
“In wildlife markets, like the one in Wuhan, Olival says animals that would rarely mix in nature come together. A bat in a cage could be stacked over a civet. And those animals are then mixed with humans — for example, butchers handling animals without gloves.”
“The way that we’re coming into contact with these animals, hunting, selling, and trading them is to a scale that really we haven’t seen before,” he says.”
“Investigators found traces of the virus in 22 stalls and a garbage truck at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, which also sold live animals. The market was shut down in early January, as it was tied to many of the early cases.”
“While the animal in the middle is still a mystery (some early reports point to pangolin), Wang says it’s easy to imagine how an infected animal could spread the virus to humans. “The animal can sneeze, the animal can urinate,” he says, “If a human touches [it] and blows their nose or whatever — they’ve got it.” Infection could also spread through eating undercooked meat.”
“And bat researchers stress that bats aren’t just a possible source of viruses. They play a hugely important role in Earth’s ecosystem. They eat tons of insects and pollinate plants and disperse seeds for hundreds of plant species. And they’ve found a way to coexist with the viruses they carry — which means, says Wang, that even though bats may be the source of viruses that affect humans, they could also be the source of potential therapies if we study their immune systems.”
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