COVID-19 Part 6: Bat-Caused Infectious Disease Epidemics

COVID-19 Part 6: Bat-Caused Infectious Disease Epidemics April 5, 2020

Bats are kind of scary creatures. There are vampire bats that suck blood from other animals. There’s the expression, “bat out of hell.” That seems pretty appropriate when you see a flock of them flying out of some cave in the southwestern U.S. And then there’s Batman on TV. I try to stay away from bats, including that silly Batman and Robin series, played by Adam West and Burt Ward, respectively.

But one summer I didn’t. I took my family of my wife and three children on a vacation at a private home on a lake in Wisconsin during an off-week on the PGA Tour. A bat flew into the house. The kids got all excited about it. They were loving the experience. My wife Marilyn creatively grabbed a bedsheet. She held one corner of it, and each of the three children held one of the other three corners. After a few tries, they captured the bat with that bedsheet like it was a net. We had to talk the kids into taking their capture outside the house and letting the scared animal go. They wanted to keep it.

Not me! And where was I during this bat drama? Watching the action with glee! But I can tell you this: I didn’t sleep on that bedsheet that night.

I’ve posted five times, now, about this COVID-19 pandemic supposedly transmitted from bats to humans at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, and comparing this and other animal-caused infectious disease epidemics to the Mosaic food laws. They appear in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 in the Jewish Bible (Old Testament). God gave these laws to Moses to give to the Hebrew people. Ever since, the ancient Hebrews and religious Jews have distinguished themselves from people of the rest of the world (Gentiles), partly by what they eat and how it is prepared.

These Mosaic food laws begin with God saying, “You shall not eat any abhorrent thing” (Deuteronomy 14.3 NRSV). Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 say animals that have cloven hoofs and chew the cud are “clean,” and thus allowed for human consumption; but all other animals are designated “unclean” and thus forbidden for Hebrews/Jews to eat (Lev 11.2-4; Deut 14.3-6). Then, both texts list several animals in these two categories. The clean animals are ox, calves, sheep, goats, deer, etc., which are herbivores (eat only plants). The major difference between these two categories is that many of the unclean animals are carnivorous and predatory. In both texts, “bats” are listed among the unclean animals (Lev 11.19; Deut 14.18).

There are about 1,300 species of bats in the world that are divided into two categories: large bats and micro bats. Modern medical science says bats are among the major mammals (they are not birds) in the world that carry the most pathogens that are a danger to humans. Thus, the biblical designation “unclean” for bats seems pretty apt.

Infectious viruses that transmit from animals to humans are called zoonotic viruses. Medical researchers have determined that bats have been the origin of the following infectious diseases that “jumped” (transmitted) from them to humans:

Ebola is a virus that first occurred in 1976 in Africa in the town Nzara in South Sudan. It more forcefully spread into the village Yambuku located in the Democratic Republic of Congo near the Ebola River, from which it was named. Also called Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), symptoms were in this order: fever, headache, sore throat, diarrhea, vomiting, and internal bleeding. The mortality rate was very high, on average 50%.

The World Health Organization reports that 24 outbreaks of Ebola occurred, with differing sequences, between 1976 and 2013, with a total of nearly 1,600 deaths. Other outbreaks occurred thereafter in West Africa as well. The worst Ebola outbreak happened in 2014 to 2016. It killed almost 12,000 people, mostly in West Africa where it originated. It is believed that this Ebola originated from bats that roosted in a cotton factory. Only two people died of this Ebola in the U.S., and both contracted it in West Africa. Experts say Ebola spreads especially because of low-quality health systems.

Humans contract Ebola only by person-to-person exposure to their body fluids, mostly through blood, feces, and vomit, but much less so with airborne droplets. Thus, human-to-human transmission of Ebola is rare. Humans contract Ebola from animals, mostly infected pigs and somewhat from fruit bats. Animals can become infected with Ebola by eating fruit partially eaten by fruit bats that have the virus. Thus, bats are believed to be the primary origin of Ebola, with pigs as the main host reservoir. Humans likely contract Ebola mostly from infected pigs coughing or sneezing.

No wonder we have the expression “hog’s breath.” Movie star Clint Eastwood founded and owned for decades the Hog’s Breath Inn restaurant in Carmel, California, where he has lived. I met him once at the Pebble Beach golf shop during the Bing Crosby Pro-Am. I should have told him he “made my day.”

SARS is the acronym for the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic that occurred in 2002-2003. It spread into 26 countries and killed over 8,000 people. In the U.S., it killed 774 people for a 9.6% mortality rate. So, although SARS of 2003 was contracted by person-to-person, it did not spread much; yet it was quite deadly. The average seasonal flu in the U.S. is widespread and kills many thousands of people every year; yet its mortality rate is often no more than about 0.1%. This SARS epidemic was a novel coronavirus that infected humans just like the ongoing COVID-19, and both are believed to have originated from bats in China. Although source of SARS is uncertain, it is believed it originated from bats and possibly transmitted to civet cats before infecting humans. Usual human symptoms were the same as those for COVID-19: cough, fever, fatigue, headache, and respiratory difficulty resulting in pneumonia as the killer. Also like COVID-19, many people survived SARS by being hospitalized and put on a ventilator to help them breath. Since SARS 2003, this particular novel coronavirus strain is known to have occurred four times since, all in Southeast Asia. Three minor incidents occurred as lab accidents where experiments were conducted. The other incident had an unknown origin in China. A vaccine still has never been developed for SARS.

Camels are beasts of burden highly prized and used for transport and as pack animals in the Middle East. And, of course, ancient Israel was located in the Middle East. Arabs claim that camel meat is very tasty, so that they regard it as a delicacy food. Camels are amazing in that they can go for up to six months without either eating or drinking, which makes them such appropriate animals in lands with hot deserts. Now, camels chew the cud and therefore are herbivores that do not eat meat. But they do not have hoofs, let alone hoofs that divide. Rather, camels have thick paws that are good for gaining traction while walking in the sandy desert.

The Mosaic food laws forbid eating camel meat, identifying camels as “unclean.” Recall that the two requirements for an animal to be “clean,” and thus divinely approved for human consumption, is that it must both chew the cud and divide the hoof. But if an animal only meets one of these requirements, it is “unclean.” So, we read: “Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cleft you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof, they are unclean for you” (Deuteronomy 14.6-8).

MERS is the acronym for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome which occurred in 2012. Its name indicates correctly it originated in The Middle East. It was first discovered in Saudi Arabia. MERS of 2012 was a novel coronavirus that killed a total of 858 people. Thus, it did not spread easily between humans; yet, it had a very high mortality rate of about 35%. Symptoms were coughing, fever, shortness of breath, and pneumonia, which often was the killer. It is believed that MERS originated with bats and that camels became the host reservoir. The latter was proved by camels having antibodies to MERS. That is why MERS also is called “camel flu.” No vaccine has ever been developed for MERS. The World Health Organization (WHO) website says of MERS:

“As a general precaution, anyone visiting farms, markets, barns, or other places where dromedary camels and other animals are present should practice general hygiene measures, including regular hand washing before and after touching animals, and should avoid contact with sick animals.

“The consumption of raw or undercooked animal products, including milk and meat, carries a high risk of infection from a variety of organisms that might cause disease in humans. Animal products that are processed appropriately through cooking or pasteurization are safe for consumption, but should also be handled with care to avoid cross contamination with uncooked foods. Camel meat and camel milk are nutritious products that can continue to be consumed after pasteurization, cooking, or other heat treatments.

“Until more is understood about MERS-CoV, people with diabetes, renal failure, chronic lung disease, and immunocompromised persons are considered to be at high risk of severe disease from MERS-CoV infection. These people should avoid contact with camels, drinking raw camel milk or camel urine, or eating meat that has not been properly cooked.”

COVID-19 that presently has killed 60,000+ people for a 5.1% mortality rate. I believe the world should take notice about the Mosaic food laws forbidding Jews to eat and even touch animals deemed “unclean.” For these laws also say, “By these you shall become unclean; whoever touches the carcass of any of these shall be unclean until the evening, and whoever carries any part of the carcass of any of them shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening” (Leviticus 11.24-25). So, not only eating such animals but touching them with your body, or your clothes touching them, signifies that you and/or your clothes are unclean and therefore must be washed. Then you must remain away from community a few hours before you can congregate.

I think this instruction against even touching an unclean animal strongly suggests there is something about these animals themselves that make them “unclean.” I suspect it is that they carry an extraordinary number of pathogens that can be detrimental to human health. Medical scientists say a bat can carry as many as 5,000 such pathogens, and scientists have studied only about 2,000 of them.

I think there is something even more important about some of these Mosaic food laws, such as regarding bats being designated “unclean” and therefore forbidden for human consumption or even to touch them. It is that neither Moses nor any of those ancient Hebrews understood what today’s scientists do about the danger of humans being in contact with bats due to their toxic pathogens.

For Bible believers such as me, it was God that gave those food laws to those ancient Israelites. And the fact that he did so is a testimony to his existence. How so? God here said his covenant people, “you are a people holy to the LORD [=Yahweh] your God” (Deut 14.21). Holy does not mean more righteous, though that is what they were supposed to be. “Holy” means “set (them) apart” from the other peoples to be a testimony of God to the world.

For 400 years, the Hebrew people lived in Egypt and became slaves. Then God raised up Moses, who led his Hebrew people out of Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies came chasing after them on their horses to destroy them. But the Hebrews escaped through the Red (Reed?) Sea as the Egyptian armies all drowned in the sea. Then God said to his people, “I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD who heals you” (Exodus 15.26). God gave them the food laws after this.

I think one way in which God has not brought diseases upon his Hebrew/Jewish people, when they were faithful to him, has been through their obedience in observing the food laws he gave them. Other people should be able to observe that the rest of the world eating some of these unclean animals and suffering for it indicates that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Bible, the God of creation of the universe, really does exist, knew the hygienic status of these animals, and all humans should take notice by believing in, and worshipping, him.

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