CRUCIBLE: Bats in Tawi-Tawi and Covid-19 (2)

QUEZON CITY  (MindaNews / 02 May) — Beyond serendipity, my encounter with bats in Tawi-Tawi and my desire to know whether those bat researchers are milikan (Western-looking) or lannang (Chinese-looking) happened around three months before the “WHO’s Epidemic Intelligence System picked up a report about a cluster of areas of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China” on 31 December 2019.

Such curiosity is neither anticipation nor precognition of COVID-19. It is just being aware how bio researchers have been studying animals including bats as zoonotic carriers of virus to human. Zoonosis is a disease that is usually transmitted from animals to people like rabies, anthrax and so on. The more controversial one is the fact that animals have long been used in bio research and germ warfare program in many countries.

A colony of bats rests on a tree beside the convent of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Bongao, Tawi-tawi. Photo taken Nov. 11, 2011 by AMIEL MARK CAGAYAN

Related to this last point, there are two books I’d relished reading years ago – “Plague Wars: The Terrifying Reality of Biological Warfare (1999);” and, “The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen Myth (2003).”

In the “Plague Wars” of Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, bats are not included in the list of bio research program in US and USSR labs during the Cold War. So too with Barbara Seaman’s “The Greatest Experiment…” bio research on estrogen for menopausal women.

But, when past epidemics on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and its variants became frequent (where bats and other animals like civet and birds are found out to be) zoonotic carrier not to mention today’s manifold issues on vaccine-causing cancer and other related diseases involving big pharma companies, it is not improbable for informed ones to mark scientists engaged on bat research particularly how much, if ever, they involved in so-called “gain-of-function research.”

The key term is “frequent.” While epidemics and pandemics punctuate history ever since, why is there such increasing frequency in recent years?

More crucial questions are those engaged in gain-of function research. Who are they? Who’s financing them? Where are their labs hooked to? Are they big pharma companies or the so-called Military-Industrial Complex?

This curiosity (or suspicion some people may impute) is not meant being zealously critical on bio research including the study of bats.  There is just something crucial in gain-of-function research, which is another key concept on the question about COVID 19.

According to Michael Silgelid in the Science and Engineering Ethics Nature Publishing Group:

“Gain-of-function (GOF) research involves experimentation that aims or is expected to (and/or, perhaps, actually does) increase the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens. Such research, when conducted by responsible scientists, usually aims to improve understanding of disease-causing agents, their interaction with human hosts, and/or their potential to cause pandemics. The ultimate objective of such research is to better inform public health and preparedness efforts and/or development of medical countermeasures (2016).”

On the contrary, supposed “ultimate objective” in gain-of-function research

is undergirded with another key term – “dilemma of dual use” – wherein scientific and technological discoveries, invention and development is increasingly becoming responsible in today’s global problems like proliferation of nuclear arms, climate change, and so on. This is not to mention “accidents” in nuclear facilities like the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986 and, if the same could possibly be attributed to, what happened in the bio research at Wuhan Institute of Virology in Hubei, China that allegedly spread COVID 19.

Truth is, researchers have long been studying bats in many parts of the world including Southeast Asia.

For instance, it was found out that viruses from bats in Thailand share similar trait with what were previously identified in Africa (Betacoronavirus-b) and in Europe (Alphacoronavirus & Betacoronavirus-b), although additional two new coronaviruses in two bat specifies were identified (Ar Gouilh et al: 2001).

In Myanmar, Valitutto et al (2020) found that: “Three novel alphacoronaviruses, three novel betacoronaviruses, and one known alphacoronavirus previously identified in other Southeast Asian countries were detected for the first time in bats in Myanmar.”

“Ongoing land use change,” according to Valitutto and his colleagues, “remains a prominent driver of zoonotic disease emergence in Myanmar, bringing humans into ever closer contact with wildlife, and justifying continued surveillance and vigilance at broad scales.”

In the study of Watanabe et al (2010) of bats in UP Diliman and UP Los Banos in 2008, it was shown that of “fifty-two bats captured during July 2008…[sic] groups 1 and 2 CoVs were similar to Bat-CoV/China/A515/2005 (95% nt sequence identity) and Bat-CoV/HKU9–1/China/2007 (83% identity), respectively.”

While Watanabe et al’s research shows that Philippine bats (in Diliman and Los Banos) share “sequence identity” with bats in China, it does not reveal any direct zoonotic correlation that could potentially lead to SARS-COVID or if the same bats are the ones used in the gain-of-function research in Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.

Given the paucity of bio researches on bats in other parts of the country including Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, it is but logical to raise question why indeed foreign researchers frequent Panglima Sugala and what they had, if any, found out. The same must be raised if they’d visited other areas as well, if at all.

If reports were true that the two Chinese researchers responsible in the spread of COVID 19 in Wuhan Institute of Virology had previously gone to research bats in Australia and possibly other countries in Southeast Asia, what could have stopped them from visiting other areas in the Philippines known for bats? Were they amongst those who visited Tawi-Tawi before the corona virus pandemic? We don’t know.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines].