World's bat lands seed risk of a new pandemic

STORY: Walking through Ghana’s woodland, farmer Boamah Sonkaa treads carefully.

Beneath him, ashanti plums lay scattered on the ground – many scarred with bite marks from bats.

The saliva-tainted fruit potentially bears bat viruses.

But residents at times feed the bats’ leftovers to livestock.

Sometimes people even eat the fruit themselves.

For millennia, bat viruses lurked in forests across West Africa and other parts of the world.

Undisturbed, they posed little threat to humanity.

But today, as more and more people encroach on bat habitat, they are unwittingly helping bat-borne viruses mutate, multiply, and infect other species.

This collision between bats and humans is creating health risks across the globe, a Reuters data analysis found. And experts say it could trigger the next pandemic.

In June 2022, Sonkaa’s friend, Mahama Faatey, died of a mysterious illness.

Lab tests later confirmed the 26-year-old farmer had Marburg: a deadly virus found in the Egyptian rousette, a common African fruit bat.

Sonkaa clearly remembers going to the hospital and carrying his friend’s body to the mortuary.

"They said blood had been coming from his ears, face, teeth and nose. His body started swelling up immediately after he died. When I went to see him, I couldn't recognize him because his body had turned dark - black like your camera."

Faatey’s infant son died of Marburg soon after.

Their deaths came out of the blue: this was the virus’s first known appearance in Ghana.

But a Reuters data analysis found the area where the farmer lived and worked was among the likeliest places on Earth for such an outbreak.

"Bats are reservoirs of all sorts of diseases that can pass on to man.”

Doctor Richard Suu-ire is a bat researcher at the University of Ghana.

“As of now, I can say that most of these zoonotic diseases are coming from the wildlife. And bats are one of the key species that shed viral zoonosis."

Widely studied by researchers such as Suu-ire, bats are a leading reservoir of viruses: 72,000 by some estimates.

Scientists have yet to determine the source of the virus that caused COVID-19, the deadliest pandemic of this century.

But of this they are certain: its origins lie in a family of viruses found in horseshoe bats, a type common in tropical Asia.

Other bat viruses have also been linked to some of the deadliest diseases of the last half century, like Ebola, Nipah and SARS.

These viruses jump from bats to humans either by way of an intermediary host, such as a pig or chimpanzee, or more directly through human contact with bat urine, feces, blood or saliva.

Such leaps are known as 'zoonotic spillover.'

To examine where the next pandemic may emerge, Reuters used two decades of disease-outbreak locations combined with dozens of environmental variables.

Reuters is the first to combine the factors in this way for a global analysis, with the goal of identifying the places on Earth most vulnerable to spillover of bat viruses.

We found more than 9 million square kilometers on Earth where conditions in 2020 were ripe for a bat-borne virus to spill over to humans.

Those areas, which we’ve dubbed “jump zones,” cover 6% of Earth’s land mass and are home to 1.8 billion people.

The Reuters jump zones do not paint a complete picture of spillover risk. No analysis can capture all variables that could contribute to spillover.

Many scientists say the catalyst for outbreaks isn’t bat behavior, but our own.

Thirst for resources – iron ore, gold and rubber, to name a few – is driving unchecked disruption of wild areas and increasing the chances for a virus to leap from bats to humans.

Here’s Dr. Richard Suu-ire again.

"We have to look at the whole country: where do we have the bat type or bat species, how are people interacting with them, and do we have the caves, the mines, the holes, and other things around the country that are disturbing them and risking the lives of people."

But governments and corporations are doing little to assess risk.

In bat-rich Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana, pending applications would double the territory used for mining, according to Reuters analysis.

In Liberia, Finance Minister Samuel Tweah told Reuters that talk of spillover risk has the potential to scare away investment the country needs for economic growth and improved living standards. But Mining and Energy Minister Gesler Murray said disease risk management must become part of standard mining practices.

Almost one-third of that expansion would be in existing jump zones.

(Dr. Richard Suu-ire) “So my advice would be for us to wake up and listen to scientists and start putting measures in place to prevent diseases that we're able to prevent."