Bats in general aren't entirely blameless, though...

By Korin Miller
Updated April 21, 2020
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When news of any new, fast-spreading virus starts making the rounds, two things happen: public panic ensues and misinformation starts to proliferate—and the new coronavirus has sparked both.

In December 2019, an outbreak of a novel coronavirus—now known as SAR-CoV-2 (initially named 2019-nCoV)—was detected in Wuhan, a city in Central China's Hubei province. Since then, more than 2.5 million people worldwide have developed the infection, and at least 171,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University's real-time tracker, which maps confirmed cases of the illness we now know as COVID-19. The US accounts for more than 804,000 of those cases and 43,200 deaths.

While health officials across the world—and, honestly, the entire world in general—try to figure out what exactly the new coronavirus is (Where did it start? How is it transmitted? What's making it so infectious?), one thing in particular is certainly not helping anyone: Claims that it somehow originated with one woman eating something people are referring to as "bat soup." (Seriously—the searches for "bat soup" in Google Trends truly skyrocketed).

Where exactly did the "bat soup" claim come from?

According to Foreign Policy, a video recently surfaced of a Chinese woman holding an entire bat with chopsticks, appearing to eat the creature in a soup. The Daily Mail also reported on the video, and YouTube channel RT shared the footage. The clip was reportedly met with outrage from Twitter users, who quickly began calling out Chinese eating habits as the cause of the outbreak.

But here's the thing, per Foreign Policy: That video in question reportedly wasn't filmed in Wuhan or China in general—the woman in the video, who news outlets have identified as Wang Mengyun, is a host of an online travel show who was actually eating a dish in Palau, an island country located in the western Pacific ocean. The video was also reportedly filmed in 2016—well before the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Mengyun has also reportedly apologized for the footage. "I am sorry everyone. I should not have eaten a bat," she said, according to the South China Morning Post. “[I] had no idea during filming that there was such a virus,” she continued. “I realized it only recently.”

So where did coronavirus originate—and is it linked to bats at all?

This is where it gets tricky: Coronaviruses in general are a large family of viruses that can affect many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, and bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In rare cases, those viruses are also zoonotic, which means they can pass between humans and animals—as was the case with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory system (SARS), two severe coronaviruses in people.

Initially, this novel coronavirus was believed to have started in a large seafood or wet market, suggesting animal-to-person spread, according to the CDC. But a large number of people diagnosed with the virus reportedly didn't have exposure to the wet markets, and now it's clear that the virus is primarily spreading person-to-person, says the CDC.

Is it possible that the novel coronavirus began with an infected animal at the market—and then went on to person-to-person transmission once people were infected? While experts still haven't pinpointed the actual source, new research released online by the CDC on April 21 concludes that SARS-CoV-2 "is probably a novel recombinant virus"—one that has features closely related to coronaviruses found in bats and pangolins (scaly-skinned mammals).

However, none of the existing coronaviruses represents its immediate ancestor, notes Susanna K. P. Lau, MBBS, MD, head of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, and colleagues, who analyzed the genome of the novel coronavirus.

"Although the Wuhan market was initially suspected to be the epicenter of the epidemic, the immediate source remains elusive," Dr. Lau and colleagues write. If the Wuhan market were the source, it's possible, they say, that bats carrying the bat coronavirus were mixed in the market, enabling a new combination virus to develop. "However, no animal samples from the market were reported to be positive," the team points out. What's more, neither the first identified case in a human nor other early patients had visited the market, "suggesting the possibility of an alternative source."

Dr. Lau and colleagues' study, released ahead of publication in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, also throws cold water on an Internet rumor that the virus may have been created in a lab: "there is currently no evidence showing that SARS-CoV-2 is an artificial recombinant."

Another recent paper in Nature Medicine underscores that point. “By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes,” Kristian Andersen, PhD, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research and corresponding author on the paper, said in a statement. Andersen and colleagues' research implicates bats and possibly pangolins.

Overall, the origin of the novel coronavirus is still filled with what-ifs and maybes, but even if bats are partly to blame, the likelihood that "bat soup" played a role is just an extremely misinformed (and potentially xenophobic) rumor.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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