Are Bats the Key to Fighting Coronavirus? CNN Producer Tells Mediaite Why Her New Doc Looks to the Animal for the Cure


GREG WOOD/AFP via Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect countries worldwide, many scientists and researchers have attempted to uncover the mystery of its origin. Although there have been rumors and theories that predict the virus started in a lab, there is strong evidence that it actually originated in bats, specifically the horseshoe bat, but how did it spread through people, and can it be treated?

CNN will air their special BATS: The Mystery Behind Covid-19 on Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET, which will take a closer look at the connection between bats and human viruses, specifically focusing on Covid-19.

The special, hosted by Anderson Cooper, will examine how the mammals that contributed to the ongoing pandemic could be the very key to finding the coveted cure.

Mediaite spoke with Nancy Duffy, executive producer of the special, to get her insight on the connection between bats and coronaviruses, how bats could help fight Covid-19 and other coronaviruses in the future, and why health experts have been so interested in the animal for so long.

This interview has been edited and condensed for content and clarity.

Are bats really the key to fighting the coronavirus? 

We bring you inside these caves with these virus hunters, they tracked this virus to a cave in subtropical China, South China, to this horseshoe bat. The same bat that was the originator of the SARS virus.

They’re going into these caves that have all these viruses in them. And they go in there to find bats and the viruses because they study them so that we can with these pandemics like Covid-19 breakout, they want to have a vaccine or a treatment in advance of the pandemic.

So we talked to, not just the scientists in China [Dr. Shi Zheng-Li]. She’s also known as the “bat woman” in China. She was … at the forefront of these viruses, the research to bats for SARS. And she’s the head director of the Wuhan virology lab that originally people thought might have been the source of the virus of Covid-19. It turned out they were able to sequence the genome and realized that it did not come from the lab, that it actually came naturally. They came from horseshoe bats. That was the source of Covid-19.

So we explained not only through these scientists, these expeditions that they go into these caves to find these bats and to find these viruses, but we also explained a lot about how this virus go from a bat in China to humans. How do they spread it? How did we get it? Where did it come from? What do we do about it?

Do you think that the information gathered for the documentary could be used to help combat coronaviruses in the future?

Yes… Bats hold all of these coronaviruses that they’re able to carry, but they do not become sick. And so they are studying how their bodies are able to fight off these coronaviruses like Covid-19. That’s how they think they can find the key to the treatment or a cure for Covid-19.

Also … bats are one of the longest-living mammals for their size. So they’re also doing anti-aging studies on bats. What we can learn about aging and also cancer.

We have our own lore about bats and what weird things they do and how these creatures are kind of creepy, but they’re actually really valuable to the ecosystem. And in the instance of Covid-19, they’re valuable in that we could actually find out the secret to the cure or the treatments by studying how they’re able to survive them.

The other thing we reveal in this special is that no bats in North America have Covid-19. Researchers are afraid that human contact with bats in North America could give North American bats Covid-19 and kill them.

What compelled you to produce this documentary? 

Like everybody else, we were watching this story unfold in Wuhan, and [following the coverage of CNN correspondent] David Culver… And I just thought, ‘this just doesn’t make sense to me.’ How did it go from a cave a thousand miles from Wuhan to these wet markets, to New York City and everywhere else?

So we started researching it, and there’s this story in Scientific American about Dr. Shi… David had known of her also, and so we started researching her … [and] other scientists in America … [who] are bat experts. And they started explaining to us the genome sequencing that led them to discover the origin of this virus, which gave us Covid-19.

So, if these bats don’t show symptoms and the virus didn’t spread until the bats were brought to the wet markets, is Covid-19 human-made in a sense?

In order for you, for anyone, for any human or any other animal to get this coronavirus from bats, you have to have contact… So it’s really humans, unfortunately, that are to blame for this because they go into these areas where these bats live. There are two ways: One is you could be in the cave yourself and you can pick it up that way. But also, building farms near these caves where the bats live, so bats can eat fruit and drop the seed on the ground, the animal in the farm eats the seed and gets the virus, and then he gives it to the farmer. And then the farmer goes to market, and then there’s many ways of transmission.

But we wouldn’t have any of this problem if it wasn’t for human encroachment on wildlife habitat. So it’s just another lesson about learning about nature, and man and being careful and taking care because we bring many of these things on ourselves. It’s not the bats’ fault because they’re hidden away in caves. They don’t want anything to do with us, really.

[But] the actual source of the Covid-19, how it ended up in Wuhan, is still a bit of a mystery.

What makes this documentary different from other reporting on the coronavirus?

I would just say that one of the most important things about this hour is that this is really just a thriller that has science at the heart of it. It is not political. In so many of these stories, politics enters it. CNN decided, ‘let’s just look at the facts. Let’s look at the science and find out how this horrible disease came to us and what we can do to solve the problem.’ And that’s really the goal of the hour.

Have a tip we should know?

Filed Under: