'I Am A Bat Scientist Working to Prevent the Next Pandemic'

Oftentimes, it feels that as a bat scientist, I spend more time inside planes than I do exploring caves. I spent nearly half of 2019 traveling from a field site in one country to another where I and my field teams were hunting for viruses that lay in wait.

As 2019 drew to a close, I found myself on another of those trips, speaking with colleagues from 12 countries who are all collaborating on a project to identify coronaviruses circulating in bat populations throughout Western Asia. Little did we know it, but at that very same time, a coronavirus was just beginning to spread halfway around the world. I've now spent 2020 grounded as COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, has spread across the globe and caused devastation.

I wasn't surprised to learn that a coronavirus was responsible for this pandemic. This would be the third time in less than two decades that a coronavirus caused a major disease event that threatened human health around the world; before COVID-19, there were Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Both originated in bats but spread to humans via other infected animals. There is strong support for the theory that SARS-CoV-2 also originated in bats. But again an intermediary animal, thought to be the pangolin, likely transferred COVID-19 to humans.

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A group of Malayan bats. Getty/iStock

Yet before I was ever involved with bats and their connection to coronaviruses, I had a memorable encounter with these mammals that completely changed my career. I was an undergraduate student in zoology, netting Mexican free-tailed bats using a butterfly net and a five-gallon bucket as they exited caves in New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Positioned deep in the cave entrance, we struggled to keep up as thousands of bats whizzed past us, causing my hair to whip around in the wind created by the power of their flapping wings. The spectacle is such that nightly tourists gather to watch as the colony exits the cave in a ribbon formation to begin their nocturnal feast of insects and other pests.

This night in particular had such an impact on me that I've spent the subsequent 20 years focused on studying these fascinating creatures. Bats are the only mammals capable of flight with some species migrating hundreds of miles; they inhabit every continent except Antarctica; they're known to live up to 40 years; and they're remarkably diverse with more than 1,400 individual species. That also makes them exceptionally well-suited for hosting and spreading pathogens that cause disease—this is known as being a "disease reservoir."

But disease outbreaks are not the fault of bats. These viruses have co-evolved alongside bats for hundreds of years, if not more. My work involves looking at the ways in which the human impact on bat environments could be promoting the spread of viruses. Amongst other factors, I look at how the conversion of forested habitats to cities or plantations is a primary threat to bats, and how such encroachment increases contact between bats and humans.

I have worked with bats in disease hotspots in Southeast Asia, Western Asia, and Eastern Africa: where high wildlife diversity, dense human populations, and rapid environmental change collide. These hotspots can facilitate the transmission of a pathogen into humans, potentially sparking the next pandemic.

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Stock image of bats hanging in a dark cave. Getty/iStock

My role as a bat scientist in preventing the next pandemic is to conduct "boots-on-the-ground" surveillance. For the past three years, I have worked hands-on with in-country partners across Western Asia, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, and Turkey, to collect samples from bats for cataloging the diversity of coronaviruses, an arduous task that is often underappreciated yet fundamental.

Capturing bats requires spending long nights that begin at dusk, and at times last until sunrise. With mosquitoes buzzing in my ear and the heat remaining from a summer day baking through my long-sleeved shirt and thick pants, I carefully weigh and measure the tiny bats then take diagnostic samples such as oral swabs, feces, and a small amount of blood. After we offer them a few drops of fruit juice, the bat is released to fly away into the darkness.

I work for EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works globally to better understand the mechanics of how diseases spread. These samples are invaluable in our fight against new and emerging diseases. They help us to get a better picture of what threats are out there and where they are; if we have learned anything this year my hope is that it's to understand a virus halfway around the world is potentially only a plane ride away from our doorsteps. We fight the threat of terrorism with continual surveillance, so there's no reason to expect the same wouldn't be necessary to fight the threat of disease.

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Dr. Kendra Phelps is a research scientist who works with bats. Part of her work is collecting samples from bats for cataloging the diversity of coronaviruses. Dr. kendra Phelps

Additionally, viral samples I collect during my fieldwork can be used by the makers of vaccines and therapeutics to test their drugs against a broad array of viral threats.

But despite being an international bat scientist, I have spent the better part of this year grounded by the very thing I've worked to prevent. But my work hasn't stopped despite the pandemic. I continue to coordinate the field teams in each country while they persevere despite the pandemic to sample bats. I am always ready to provide remote support at any time of day, even if just to answer questions about the best spot to place the mist nets or help with identifying a bat species.

Having spent my career trying to sound the alarm about the massive threat that viruses like SARS-CoV-2 present, there is a deep sadness in being "right." But I leave you with this message of hope: humans are the main cause of pandemics like COVID-19 and, as such, we can be the solution.

Being in isolation or unable to travel may make it more difficult to see, but we are all a part of a global community. I believe it's important for us to connect with the idea that the health of people, animals, and our environment are interconnected. Multidisciplinary approaches–incorporating virologists, social scientists, policy makers and, yes, bat scientists–are essential to address the problem of new and emerging diseases with any efficacy.

I believe it is only when we appreciate that the health of animals and the environment are intertwined with our own health we can truly prevent the next pandemic.

Kendra Phelps is a research scientist with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that develops science-based solutions to prevent pandemics. She has 17 years of experience in field-based research on the ecology and health of bat populations, and currently coordinates the Western Asia Bat Research Network. Her research will be featured in "VIRUS HUNTERS" premiering November 1st at 9/8c on National Geographic.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.