Via NPR's Goats and Soda blog, a post by Michaeleen Doucleff: The Next Pandemic Could Be Dripping On Your Head. Excerpt:
Welcome to the bat cave. No, we're not talking about the secret headquarters of a superhero.
This is Gomantong — an ancient cave carved out of 20 million-year-old limestone in the middle of the Borneo rain forest in Malaysia. It's part of a vast network of tunnels and caverns. And it's the perfect hideout for bats.
Up at the top are millions of bats. Literally millions. They hang upside down all day long from the cave's ceiling, sleeping and pooping.
"Oh dear! We've been dripped on," says Mike Lindley-Jones, a doctor from Australia, as some liquid falls on his head. "Is this bat urine?"
"No, it's just water," says Jimmy Lee, an officer with the Sabah Wildlife Department, who is guiding us through the cave, along a wooden boardwalk.
Then Lindley-Jones suddenly grabs the handrail covered in guano.
"Don't touch your face!" Lee warns, because inside that bat excrement could be something potentially dangerous.
"That's why I'm wearing a mask," says Kevin Olival, a virologist with the U.S.-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance.
We're all wearing masks. Because bats tend to carry lots of viruses. Some of them are harmful to us. Bats are vital for keeping the rain forest alive — they are key pollinators for more than 500 kinds of plants. But as people spread out around the globe, we're increasingly coming into contact with bats — and the viruses they carry. Right here, we're using one of their favorite hideouts as a tourist attraction.
"Visiting beautiful places like this inspires people to protect tropical ecosystems and the species that live here," Olival says. "At the same time, we need to recognize that there may be potential health risks when people and wildlife come together, and that's why we're working to understand and limit those risks."
A few years ago, Olival, Lee and their colleagues with the Danau Girang Field Centre went hunting for viruses around this cave. And they couldn't believe what they found.
"We found 48 new viruses in the surrounding forest," Olival says, "including a virus related to SARS in bats that roost in the cave."
Olival and his colleagues don't know yet if these new viruses can infect people. They are related to viruses that do. But SARS-like viruses aren't something to mess around with.