Amid a Pandemic, ‘Batman’ Matters More Than Ever

SINGAPORE — The bat is considered lucky in China; the words for bat and good fortune sound alike in Chinese. But Wang Linfa didn’t give much thought to the order Chiroptera while growing up in Shanghai in the 1960s and ’70s, when the main sign of nighttime life was the soft whir of commuters bicycling home from factories.

He had yet to discover that roughly one-quarter of all mammal species are bats and that they range from the size of a bumblebee to a type of flying fox with a five-foot wingspan. He did not know that bats live up to four decades, even as their immune systems contend with a laboratory’s worth of viruses.

And Mr. Wang, 60, had not embarked on his life’s work, researching how the anatomy and habits of the world’s only flying mammals make them an ideal viral reservoir, helping to spread pathogens from one species to another and from one geographic region to another.

“They call me Batman. I think it’s a compliment because bats are special,” said Mr. Wang, sitting in an office adorned with bat pictures, bat stuffed animals, Batman logos — enough bat paraphernalia that it might be considered a bat cave, if it were not on the ninth floor of a sunny building in Singapore.

“Bats are resilient to viruses that can kill humans. If we can learn from bats to do what they do, then we will be very fortunate,” he said.

Mr. Wang heads the Emerging Infectious Diseases Program at the medical school run by Duke University and the National University of Singapore, and he is also the chairman of a scientific advisory board at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in China.

He and other virologists suspect that the coronavirus responsible for the pandemic currently sweeping the world originated in bats, as did other killer viruses like SARS and MERS. He led a team that last month invented an antibody test kit for the coronavirus that can produce results in an hour.

Just as the pandemic has catapulted a shy, flitting creature into a new position of international prominence, it has also propelled a small band of bat and virus researchers into the public eye.

Scientists like Mr. Wang usually toil in relative obscurity, but suddenly the world needs them more than ever, and their work is complicated by a political minefield they never expected to navigate.

Beijing is sensitive to any criticism of China’s early missteps in handling the pandemic, while President Trump has claimed, without citing any evidence, that the virus emerged from the same Wuhan institute Mr. Wang advises — an idea that Mr. Wang and other scientists dismiss as nonsense.

But the controversy is not an entirely new experience for Mr. Wang, whose life has been bracketed and shaped by political upheavals.

His parents never finished grade school, but they hoped that education would lift their children out of poverty. The Cultural Revolution upended schooling in China but Mr. Wang managed to take the 1977 college entrance examination, the first that was offered in more than a decade. He scored very well.

“Growing up, my family never owned a book,” Mr. Wang said. “Well, except for Mao’s Little Red Book, but we had to have that.”

Some of the students who earned university spots that year went on to privileged positions, like Li Keqiang, the current premier of China. Mr. Wang wanted to study mathematics or engineering — “we all wanted to be engineers because engineers did something useful” — but his scores were only good enough for the biology department, he said.

An aptitude for languages earned Mr. Wang another opportunity, as one of the first people from mainland China after the communist era began to be allowed to study in the United States. He earned his doctorate in molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of California, Davis.

“At first, I only knew how to say ‘long live Chairman Mao’ in English,” he said. “Then I had to learn all these hard words in biology. The words were very long.”

A few years later, he and his wife, Meng Yu, a biochemist, were considering jobs in Australia. They happened to be there on June 4, 1989, when China crushed the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

“That caught me totally unprepared,” Mr. Wang said of the massacre. “When I saw the tanks on the Tiananmen Square, then I said, OK, my political judgment is not as good as my scientific judgment.”

The couple decided Australia was a safer bet and stayed for 25 years. It was there that Mr. Wang entered the world of bat virology.

A novel virus began sickening horses and then humans in a Brisbane suburb in the mid-1990s. A few years later, another virus emerged in people and livestock in Malaysia. Mr. Wang helped confirm that both pathogens, Hendra virus and Nipah virus, had bat origins, which he did again with SARS.

Those discoveries showed how environmental shifts can catalyze a surprising epidemiological chain of events. The Nipah virus, which moved from bats to pigs to humans in Southeast Asia, may have made an interspecies jump after widespread forest fires set to clear land in the 1990s forced bats beyond their normal habitat.

“If a bat is stressed, bad things can happen,” Mr. Wang said. “We need to take care of bats. Then we can take care of humans.”

In January, as a mystery viral outbreak gripped Wuhan in central China, he traveled there to find out more from his fellow bat specialists, including Shi Zhengli, nicknamed Batwoman, who was instrumental in linking SARS to bats.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

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    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

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      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


Traveling between his hotel and the institute in mid-January, Mr. Wang noticed a heavy security presence. But the security forces, he discovered, were not there to battle an invisible contagion. Instead, they were there to protect local government officials who were attending a pair of big annual meetings.

“People say those two political conferences were probably the costliest in human history,” Mr. Wang said.

Local officials were so intent on not allowing anything to disrupt their gatherings that they suppressed information about the outbreak, allowing it to spread unchecked for weeks in a city of 11 million people.

In late December, researchers in Wuhan had sent viral samples for sequencing to commercial laboratories and determined that they were dealing with a new pathogen, Mr. Wang said. Doctors were soon warning each other in online chat groups about likely human-to-human transmission, but were punished by the local government for their outspokenness.

Mr. Wang acknowledges that the authorities in Wuhan delayed alerting the public about a deadly virus that had emerged from a wet market in the city, where wild animals were slaughtered. (Scientists believe that a bat transmitted the virus to an intermediary animal, like a pangolin or bamboo rat, which then passed it on to humans.)

But Mr. Wang shakes his head at the insinuation from Mr. Trump’s administration that a leak, even an accidental one, could have come from the government institute, where Ms. Shi and her team stored samples of other bat-borne coronaviruses from all over China.

“It’s a crazy, wrong idea, if you know about viruses,” he said. “They didn’t have that novel coronavirus in the laboratory.”

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