Bat Woman and other tales

- September 4, 2020
| By : Manjula Lal |

In a bid to increase understanding of the pandemic, this book comes at a time when the future is uncertain. Its main value is a look back at what has been happening in the scientific community after the outbreak of SARS and MERS   ‘Don’t blame the bats’, is the title of one of the […]

In a bid to increase understanding of the pandemic, this book comes at a time when the future is uncertain. Its main value is a look back at what has been happening in the scientific community after the outbreak of SARS and MERS  

‘Don’t blame the bats’, is the title of one of the chapters in this book by Debora Mackenzie, meaning it is only Man’s – or rich Chinaman’s – consumption of exotic meats that led us to this pass. She is a science reporter of at least four decades standing, which means she has followed the ‘story’ that has led to this worldwide public health crisis for a long time. She has access to medical studies, research and expertise day in and day out. So there is a point in spending time ploughing through this 300-page book despite all the information we have been bombarded with these past four months, most of us in lockdown.

The blurb for this book, titled Covid-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One states boldly that global actions of all kinds will help us fight the pandemic and also prevent the next one. But through most of the book, the reader gets the creepy feeling that multiple viruses and their mutants are prevalent all around us and the scientific community has no way of knowing when one will jump from a wild animal onto a human and start its triumphant march through our noses, throats and lungs. You might have second thoughts about going on a jungle safari as a bat’s poop might fall through the branches and start a spiral that infects all economies.

What stays with you after this book, as in things we don’t already know? Well, just some trivia. Did you know that bats are the world’s most prevalent mammal, even though they need caves to live in, and modern humans hardly ever encounter them. It turns out that the vampire fiction that once enthralled readers is actually prophetic, for if after a bat bites a human and turns her into a vampire, then she will in turn sink her fangs into another human on the pretext of romance or pure villainy, and then the next. Isn’t that called person-to-person transmission?

On a more sombre note, the chapter on bats starts thus: ‘The Covid-19 virus comes from bats. So did SARS. So do MERS, Ebola, Marburg, Hendra and Lassa viruses. So does Hepatitis C, which an estimated 71 million people are living with worldwide…’ If this is not horrifying enough, another terrible fact that emerges is that a lab in China – and its work was verified by the US – found a virus very similar to the one that causes Coronavirus in 2013. But no action was taken.

Two things now become clear to the TV-viewing public at large. Since the US scientific community was working closely with Chinese virologists, this is why President Trump abruptly stopped blaming China for the pandemic. Maybe because the two giant economies have been working together and all the information that came out in experiments was shared. And this is also a reason why the rest of the world seems sunk in despair: if the two giants are so helpless, then what can weaker economies do? Mackenzie also informs us that research into a vaccine for MERS dried up, so the labs shut down.

On a more sinister note, we wonder, are these labs working on weapons for biological warfare? Conspiracy theories about this aspect will never die down.

In our country, depending on where you stand politically, the sudden lockdown announced at the end of March was either necessary or a knee-jerk reaction. It didn’t help that we had experienced a demonetisation that came into effect in a few hours and left everyone in a financial mess. This time, it was the distress of migrant workers that had everyone aghast. To be fair to the government, no-one had an inkling that this situation would arise, as state governments were supposed to feed the needy.

Worldwide, what is the thinking on sudden lockdowns? The author thinks it is absolutely necessary, as the prospect of the virus being carried to remote corners of the provinces is daunting.  However, the jury is still out on this. In India, we keep wondering, would one more week of trains and buses running have been better than people walking to their home states? But then, who knew that migrant workers were such a large part of the workforce?

We learn from this book that it was 16 years ago, in 2004, that Li Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, dubbed ‘Bat Woman’, started looking for the SARS virus in nature. She found antibodies in people living near the caves in Yunnan and gave a clear warning. The virus, she found, doesn’t harm the bats at all and usually it first ‘lives’ in another animal, like pangolim in China and camels in Saudi Arabia, before it finds a happy hunting ground in humans.  Ah, the mysteries of nature.

As for that salvation we are all waiting for – vaccines – what does she say about the capacity of the world to manufacture enough for billions  of people? Here again the scenario seems grim. As in:

‘We can brew up enough vaccine in labs to do safety tests in humans. But what if we have a Nipah vaccine we know is safe and want to use it in Bangladeshi villages….?  We can’t build a factory just for that vaccine if we don’t know it works.’  Here we go again. The world which spends so much on nuclear bombs which will never be used, and has such a sophisticated arsenal of arms and armaments, has no money for pharmaceuticals. Despite the fact – get this – that medicines are the biggest industry in the world.

The author seems a bit soft on WHO, maybe due to long association with the organisation. She even says at one point that “It was nobody’s business” to look into what the virology labs were saying. It does seem to us that WHO should have been more proactive, but every multilateral organisation seems to be a tiger with no teeth. If you look at the United Nations, it has not been able to stop a single undeclared war, where it is Iran-Iraq, Israel-Palestine or indeed in Kashmir, where it has an observer’s post.  It seems to be only a forum for speechifying.

A good point made in the book is that ‘We have established that our globalised, interdependent world is surprisingly fragile.” She does not advocate the end of globalisation but a looser version, where the US medical system would not be crippled if they failed to get drugs from China. In our own country, the Modi government has talked of Atma Nirbhar (Self-Reliant) Bharat. Well, Swadeshi was a major slogan of the BJP when it was not in power, probably because the traders and businessmen who supported the party wanted to keep out the competition. The toy industry, for instance, is ecstatic that the PM recently talked about India producing toys for the world. What it needs, perhaps, is more innovation, not more protection. Parents have gone for Chinese toys (and Diwali lights) because they offer amazing designs never seen before in India, and the variety is also mind-boggling.

So what does the author say about China, regarded by many as the ultimate vampire, especially in India and tiny Bhutan, where territorial expansionism is on display. ‘While it is true that China hid details of the virus from the world for the first few weeks, it is also true that China itself has sustained enormous economic damage, which as in other countries was caused more by its efforts to stop the spread of the virus than the virus itself, although the death toll has been horrible. Nor was it the only country that was slow in recognising and responding to Covid-19. Lots of countries made mistakes, and probably haven’t made them all yet.”

All said and done, this book seems a bit premature — any real assessment of the pandemic can only be done next year, and there was no need to rush to press (the author was given two months to write this) right in the middle of Covid-19’s devastation all over the world. But then, by this time next year, readers would definitely have moved onto the new normal, and would have no time to read books in all the rush of daily life. It would be left to governments to made sure that research by virologists continues, and that disaster management teams are clued into findings coming out of labs.

Covid-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One

Debora Mackenzie

Hachette, Rs 699/-, pp 300

(Cover: Debora Mackenzie)