In many cultures bats are associated with vampires, evil and death. Which is hardly surprising; they have wings and fly like birds (actually better than birds) but are mammals so they have fur. And teeth. And nurse their young – but they don’t walk on four legs. WTF? And as if that’s not enough they are mostly nocturnal, choose to live in darkness in unusual places and, well, just don’t seem to fit in with the normal order of things.
Bat apologists would point out only 3 of 13,000 species are haematophagic (drink blood – and they lap it, not suck it) and that the anticoagulant in their spit has been developed into an anti-stroke medication – but I’m a microbiologist so through my lens they’re dirty little bastards and a reservoir for at least 60 viruses known to infect humans. And it’s not just the coronaviruses; Hendra, Nipah, Ebola, Marburg – bats are almost as revolting as The Fluffy Vermin.
Anyway, the coronavirus that’s causing the first proper pandemic in 100 years shares over 96.2% of its genetic code with a bat coronavirus called RaTG13. Never heard of it? Don’t beat yourself up. It was isolated from a horseshoe bat in Yunnan in 2013. Genetically the virus was very similar to the SARS strain that made the global public health community shit itself a decade earlier.
In 2013 we knew that bat coronaviruses jumped from animals to humans and posed a pandemic threat. But there were bigger stories that year; the deaths of Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, a new Pope, a Royal birth and few people were interested in a coronavirus in China that only infected bats.
It now seems that RaTG13 underwent two mutations (or picked them up from another virus) that turned from bat virus into the killer stalking us now. So how predictable was this?
Hindsight bias or ‘creeping determinism’ or the ‘I knew it all along‘ fallacy is the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome that could not actually have been predicted at all. We all do it. And it’s rampant at the moment.
The past is always 100% predictable but as this pandemic evolves, people shout “well of course the government(s) / WHO / medics / whoever should have done X ages ago, it’s obvious“. Every armchair expert – and much of the media – is falling into this trap: as each piece of new information emerges they second-guess decisions made before something was known as if it were patently obvious at the time.
But we can apply this to the more distant past, not just to those blaming any current government response. Of course the emergence of SARS in 2003 should have prompted us into actively working on a vaccine. Of course we should have been doing more research. Of course we shouldn’t have dropped all the SARS research when we worked out people who had it were sicker than shit for 4-5 days before they started shedding virus – so rigorous isolation and contact tracing got rid of it.
As the urgency of a potential pandemic waned we lulled ourselves back into a false sense of security; so much so that the Tangerine Shitgibbon defunded the US Pandemic Response Team. OK, that was crass ignorance but if you think that’s entirely the fault of governments not taking the threat seriously enough, think again. Look at all the nonsense on social media that’s led to the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases and all the alt-med woo bullshit? That’s us being fuckwits, not the politicians.