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PHOTO ESSAY: By catching bats, these 'virus hunters' hope to stop the next pandemic

Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Posted at Mar 23 2021 12:19 PM

LOS BANOS, Philippines - Researchers wearing headlamps and protective suits race to untangle the claws and wings of bats caught up in a big net after dark in the Philippine province of Laguna.

The tiny animals are carefully placed in cloth bags to be taken away, measured and swabbed, with details logged and saliva and faecal matter collected for analysis before they are returned to the wild.

The researchers call themselves the "virus hunters", tasked with catching thousands of bats to develop a simulation model they hope will help the world avoid a pandemic similar to COVID-19, which has killed nearly 2.8 million people.

Kirk Taray, a bat ecologist, holds onto a bat that was caught on a mist net as Ryan Llamas, a field assistant, holds up a flashlight during field work at Mount Makiling in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, March 5, 2021. "I am still starting with this career and I am planning to continue doing this as long as I can. A lot about bats is still unknown to science and I have many years ahead of me to contribute and shorten that information gap," said Taray. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

The Japanese-funded model will be developed over the next three years by the University of the Philippines Los Banos, which hopes the bats will help in predicting the dynamics of a coronavirus by analysing factors such as climate, temperature and ease of spread, to humans included.

"What we're trying to look into are other strains of coronavirus that have the potential to jump to humans," said ecologist Phillip Alviola, the leader of the group, who has studied bat viruses for more than a decade.

Phillip Alviola, a bat ecologist, takes a rectal swab from a bat that was captured from a building at the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, February 19, 2021. "What we're trying to look into are other strains of coronavirus that have the potential to jump to humans," said Alviola. "If we know the virus itself and we know where it came from, we know how to isolate that virus geographically." Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Beyond work in the laboratory, the research requires lengthy field trips, involving traipsing for hours through thick rainforest and precarious night hikes on mountains covered in rocks, tree roots, mud and moss.

The group also targets bat roosts in buildings, setting up mist nets before dusk to catch bats and extract samples by the light of torches.

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

Scientists wear personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from exposure to bats, as they set up a mist net in front of a building with a bat roost at the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, February 19, 2021. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

DEVASTATING IMPACT

Researchers wear protective suits, masks and gloves when in contact with the bats, as a precaution against catching viruses.

"It's really scary these days," said Edison Cosico, who is assisting Alviola. "You never know if the bat is already a carrier."

"What we're after is finding out if there are any more viruses from bats that can be transmitted to humans. We'll never know if the next one is just like COVID."

The bulk of those caught are horseshoe bats known to harbour coronaviruses, including the closest known relative of the novel coronavirus.

Phillip Alviola, a bat ecologist, attempts to catch a bat that was caught on a mist net that was set up in front of a building with a bat roost at the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, February 19, 2021. "What we're trying to look into are other strains of coronavirus that have the potential to jump to humans," said Alviola. "If we know the virus itself and we know where it came from, we know how to isolate that virus geographically." Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Horseshoe bats figure in two of the scenarios of World Health Organization experts investigating the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Host species, such as bats, usually display no symptoms of the pathogens, although they can be devastating if transmitted to humans or other animals.

Deadly viruses to have originated from bats include Ebola and other coronaviruses, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Humans' exposure and closer interaction with wildlife meant 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."

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Karishma Singh)

Edison Cosico, an administrative aide at the UPLB Museum of Natural History, sets up a mist net near a bat roost at Mount Makiling in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, February 18, 2021. "I get to teach students and remain a student myself. It's fun. Being in the field even for 24 hours beats being in the office from eight to five," said Cosico.Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Phillip Alviola, a bat ecologist, and Edison Cosico, an administrative aide at the UPLB Museum of Natural History, sit and wait besides a mist net that they set up near a bat roost at Mount Makiling in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, February 18, 2021. "It's really scary these days," said Cosico. "You never know if the bat is already a carrier," he added. "What we're after is finding out if there are any more viruses from bats that can be transmitted to humans. We'll never know if the next one is just like COVID."Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Ryan Llamas, a field assistant, detangles a bat that was caught on a mist net at Mount Makiling, Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, March 5, 2021.Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Kirk Taray, a bat ecologist, detangles a bat caught on a mist net that was set up in front of a building with a bat roost at the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, February 19, 2021. "With the ongoing pandemic, there is more caution taken into consideration while studying bats. Several measures and protocols are established to protect both the researchers and the bats. Also, the community quarantine and travel restrictions added difficulty especially in accessing potential areas of study," said Taray.Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Phillip Alviola, a bat ecologist, take swabs from bats as Kirk Taray notes down information at Mount Makiling in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, March 5, 2021. "The pandemic has provided a more difficult environment to work with but that should not stop science from providing answers and addressing more questions. We do not know when will this current pandemic end and it will only be a matter of time to ask when will the next outbreak might occur," said Taray.Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Phillip Alviola, a bat ecologist, takes an oral swab from a bat that was captured at Mount Makiling in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, March 5, 2021. "What we're trying to look into are other strains of coronavirus that have the potential to jump to humans," said Alviola. "If we know the virus itself and we know where it came from, we know how to isolate that virus geographically."Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Kirk Taray, a bat ecologist, holds a cloth bag containing captured bats as he walks with a team of scientists back to the foot of Mount Makiling in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, March 5, 2021. "As we continue to gain close contact with wildlife, we are deliberately exposing ourselves to diseases and danger. If we cannot stop this, we might as well develop measures of control to reduce the impacts of possible future outbreaks, at the very least. That is 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 suitable, sound, and science-based health protocols," said Taray.Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

A taxidermy of a flying fox is pictured from the Rabor Wildlife Collection at The Institute of Biological Sciences, in the University of Los Banos in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, March 3, 2021. Dioscoro Rabor was a zoologist and world-renowned ornithologist, and known to be the father of Philippine Wildlife.Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Preserved bats that were captured from the wild are stored in jars at the Museum of Natural History (MNH) in the University of Los Banos in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, March 3, 2021. Over 6000 bats are preserved, stored, and catalogued at the museum from bat captures and studies from the last two decades.Eloisa Lopez, Reuters