COVID-19 not linked to bats, Israeli biologists say

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The bat shuddered in fear as it hung precariously from Maya Weinberg’s gloved hand.

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“His name is Zorro and he is less than a year old,” said Weinberg, veterinarian and doctoral student at Prof. Yossi Yovel’s Bat Lab.

Located in the I. Meier Segals Garden for Zoological Research at Tel Aviv University, the Bat Lab hosts an eclectic array of Israeli biologists specializing in groundbreaking research.

As biologists, a cameraman and others hurried to see better, Zorro’s tremors grew more violent. Weinberg carefully placed it back into the dark, welcoming space of a small porter sitting on the next counter, shielded from prying eyes and the glowing neon lights of the lab.

At the Bat Lab, the real Bat-men (and Bat-women) of Israel conduct research on a wide variety of bats, the only mammals capable of flight.

There are over 1,400 species of bats in the world; most are nocturnal and rarely come into contact with humans. Some are good for their environment because they eat a lot of insects and even help to scatter seeds and pollinate flowers.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the public image of these unique winged creatures has taken a huge hit. So far, scientists have been unable to find any evidence linking bats to the virus, but the connection has proven to be nearly impossible to dispel.

“So far, there is no evidence showing a link between bats and COVID-19,” Weinberg told The Media Line. “This idea bordered on conspiracy.”

“The way the scientific community echoed this theory was just outrageous,” she argued. “It caused great damage to bats all over the world, especially in China, where it damaged the public perception of bats, which was already bad to begin with.”

A recent study led by Weinberg and Tel Aviv University postdoctoral researcher Dr Kelsey Moreno could have far-reaching implications for uncovering the origins of COVID-19. The study, which was recently published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science, found that sick bats maintain social distancing, possibly to prevent the spread of massive contagion in their colonies.Maya Weinberg, a PhD student at Tel Aviv University, holds up Zorro on July 7, 2021. (Photo credit: Maya Margit / The Media Line)

In order to observe their behavior, the researchers followed two colonies of Egyptian fruit bats: one living in captivity in an enclosure and the other living in its natural environment. The researchers injected a bacteria-like protein into several bats in each colony, which simulated an immune response that generated symptoms of illness.

“We were very surprised to see that sick bats actively distance themselves,” Weinberg said. “We thought the group would be the one that stayed away from sick bats – but instead, it was the sick bats that actively stay away from others in the colony. This is really not typical behavior for a wild animal, which will generally try to hide its illness. “

While the origins of the COVID-19 virus remain a mystery, some have speculated that a scientist in China who was studying coronaviruses in Wuhan may have disclosed the strain, causing a global epidemic. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is notably located near the first known epicenter of the epidemic, but Beijing has vigorously denied this theory.

However, Weinberg believes it’s possible that a scientist who ventured into China’s wilderness to collect virus samples unintentionally triggered it.

“As long as we maintain a distance from bats and allow them to stay in their isolated natural habitats… then we will not be exposing ourselves to pathogens for which we have no defense,” she stressed.

Other Bat Lab biologists are examining the biomechanics of bats, including their use of echolocation and sonar beams.

Doctoral student Ofri Eitan and his team conduct behavioral experiments with bats inside an anechoic chamber, a room designed to absorb reflections in sound.

“In this flight room, we use two methods that can help us understand the sensory behavior of bats,” Eitan told The Media Line. “These two techniques are motion tracking and echolocation recording of bats.”

The room is equipped with 50 ultrasonic microphones and a system that tracks the movement of the bat in flight. The objective is to observe the sensory behavior of the animal and to better understand how bats perceive their environment.

Eitan echoed Weinberg and pointed out that bats were unrelated to the pandemic.

“We try to educate people and show [them] that bats are much more incredible creatures than they realize, ”he said.

Adi Rachum, a master’s student, is in charge of the Bat Lab print colony, where dozens of fruit bats come and go as they please. Rachum and other students regularly feed the bats fresh fruit, which keeps them coming back.

The room is dark, humid, and looks like a cave. The aim is to imitate animals’ natural environment as closely as possible while allowing scientists to conduct research.

There are multiple cameras spread throughout the cave, including a live feed that can be accessed online 24/7.

“I put a chip on every bat we release,” Rachum told The Media Line as she held a bat for inspection. “It doesn’t hurt them and it helps us to identify them definitively, which in turn helps in our research. “

Weinberg, a doctor of veterinary medicine specializing in bats for 12 years, hopes that the lab’s ongoing pioneering research will ultimately help convince people that winged creatures are nothing to fear.

“He is a very gentle, sociable and communicative animal,” she said. “I worked with a lot of different animals before I got to bats. When you see how unique they are and learn the facts, you look at them differently. “


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