Bats, Virus, and Racism

The notion that COVID-19 originated from bat soup is easily used as a racist trope.

—Jing Wang and Li Li

Author: Jing Wang and Li Li
Originally Published on: Sinophobia Tracker

Editor’s Note:

In the final scene of the 2011 movie “Contagion,” a bat disturbed by a logging company flies out of the forest and onto a pig farm, carrying a piece of banana. The bat drops the fruit, and a pig eats it. This is revealed to be “day one” of the fictional MEV-1 outbreak. Through the pig, the virus eventually finds its way into an American character played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who soon dies as “patient zero” of a horrifying global pandemic.

To those watching the movie in 2020, the scene bears much resemblance to the reality of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Yet, do we know for sure if bats are indeed the “culprit” of the current pandemic? Have scientists figured out the novel virus’s origin and transmission routine yet?  In the following article, Jing Wang and Li Li offer a brief timeline of the bat soup myth as well as a literature review of some recent peer-reviewed articles that discuss the origin of COVID-19. Wang is a postdoctoral fellow at Shanghai New York University, whose work is focused on globalization and Muslims in China. Li is a Ph.D candidate in archeology at the University of Tübingen. Both have been following the coronavirus outbreak closely, particularly where sinophobia is involved.


From Rats to Bats

Anti-Chinese activists claimed that the Chinese were lowering California’s standard of living by spreading disease, working for cheap wages and eating rats. (New York Library) (Image Source 1)

Animals, including bats, mean different things to different cultures. The media and other institutions complicate intercultural perception of these differences, and those with racist prejudices tend to dehumanize whole groups of people by comparing them to animals.

Before the bat was unfairly linked to China and disease, the rat served the same purpose. From the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, the image of the filthy rat was constantly associated with the plague and the Chinese in North America.

Since the beginning of the 2019 outbreak, the origin of the novel coronavirus has been extensively discussed. The first diagnosed cases were found to be connected to the Huanan South China Seafood Market in Wuhan (henceforth Huanan Market). The news began to draw attention to the illegal trade and consumption of wild animals in Huanan Market; it was suspected that the virus was transmitted from animals to humans (Endnote 1).

The spotlight soon turned to bats: a mammalian animal known to host numerous viruses. Bat soup (bian fu tang 蝙蝠汤) has become one of the most infamous dishes of the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak. By the end of January 2020, netizens were raging at people who had hunted, sold, and eaten wild animals, especially bats, blaming them for “catching” the virus and infecting the innocent others. 

In this article, we show it to be a myth that the COVID-19 outbreak originated from bat soup, or any other “dirty” Chinese eating habit. This is not to deny the fact that processed bat materials are used as remedies for diseases in traditional Chinese medicine. Nor do we overlook the fact that wild animals, including bats, civets, and pangolins, urgently need protection. What we emphasize is that the notion that COVID-19 originated from bat soup is easily used as a racist trope. As those who were found to have eaten bats become victims of this cyber-bullying, we see how Asians who have long suffered from racism continue to face discrimination as COVID-19 becomes a pandemic today.


The Bat Soup Myth

On January 22, 2020, a bat soup image tweeted by Chen Qiushi, a Chinese lawyer and citizen journalist, garnered much attention. Chen followed the epidemic outbreak in Wuhan closely before and right after the lockdown of Wuhan city. His friends and family now fear that he has been silenced (Endnote 2). In his tweet, Chen expressed his disgust toward eating bats, and warned the Chinese not to eat wild animals. He did not specify where the video was taken, or who took the video.

Screen capture from Chen Qiushi’s tweet on January 22, 2020
Content translation: “Does this thing look like death in your bowl? I saw a documentary where bats lived in caves where they excreted…There was a thick layer of faeces in the cave, in which disgusting bugs lived… Will this experience be enough to make Chinese completely give up eating wildlife?” (Image Source 2)

As the bat-eating Chinese woman went viral on social media, other media outlets quickly followed in expressing disgust toward her. For instance, Apple Daily used the image of a young Chinese woman having bat soup on January 23, 2020. “She sits in a seemingly clean and bright restaurant. The woman uses her chopsticks to clamp the entire bat and starts biting the bat wing.” (Endnote 3) Yet, neither the source of the photo nor the actual location of the restaurant was identified. The bat soup image was similarly used without context in reports by the New York Post, the UK’s Mirror, the Toronto Sun, among others (Endnote 4, 5, 6). These early reports invariably expressed disgust, and juxtaposed descriptions of the bat soup and of patients in China.

Screen capture from the Apple Daily news titled “Eww! Video Showing Chinese Eating Bats Exposed“ published on January 23, 2020 (Image Source 3)

Wang Mengyun, a Chinese host of a travel show, was vilified for a video that filmed her having the bat soup dish as a local delicacy. The video was taken not in China but in Palau in 2016. However, after bats were identified as a possible carrier of the 2019 novel coronavirus, Wang’s video has been reposted and turned into another coronavirus meme (Endnote 7)

Wang has since received messages like “You should go to hell. You should be killed in the evening. You’re abnormal. You’re disgusting. Why haven’t you died?”On January 23, 2020, Wang apologized on her Weibo (microblogging) account: “[I] had no idea during filming that there [would be] such a virus.” (Endnote 8) Yet, her apology did not stop the harsh criticisms from both Chinese and non-Chinese netizens. Under intense pressure, she shut down her social media account. 

Screenshots from videos circulating on social networks in late January 2020, with captions saying bat soup is eaten in China and could be a source of the coronavirus (Image Source 4)

On February 3, 2020, the France 24 Observers further debunked the bat soup myth by pointing out that the images circulating online had different sources. The team “investigated six of the most-shared videos [, five of which] were filmed…in Palau and Indonesia. None of the videos had any documented link to the outbreak.” (Endnote 9)

Wang Mengyun’s apology on Weibo. (The apology was first published on her account on January 22, 2020, but was soon removed) (Image Source 5)

Although it had been shown that bat soup was not a dish local to Wuhan, and that it disgusted many Chinese as well, racist assumptions remained present and extended beyond bat soup. While co-hosting a Fox News program in early March, Jesse Waters shouted that the Chinese are “a very hungry people” and “they are desperate, this food [bat soup] is uncooked, it is unsafe.” (Endnote 10)
Journalists and scholars quickly took note of such trends and warned against the racist association between bats, the novel coronavirus, and Asians. James Palmer, a senior editor at Foreign Policy, called bat soup a “racist meme” and pointed out that the images were taken years ago outside of China (Endnote 11). “At a time of heightened fear over a viral pandemic, the Palau video has been deployed in the United States and Europe to renew an old narrative about the supposedly disgusting eating habits of foreigners, especially Asians.” Palmer’s analysis echoes the anti-racist position held by many journalists and scholars in the West.

Amanda Darrach, a Columbia Journalism Review Delacorte fellow, reflected on the US-centric interpretation of the bat soup images online. “Too many articles have missed the cultural significance and socioeconomic factors that underlie China’s reckoning with the coronavirus — and instead suggested that America is more sanitary, more evolved, more pure.” (Endnote 12) 

As we can see, the bat soup was first used as a general critique toward Chinese who eat wild animals, but soon became a source of racist stereotyping. The media is both fueling the stereotype of the bat-eating Chinese and helping debunk such a myth. Instead of spreading information that might contribute to racist stereotypes, we need to do fact-checking and be attentive to the cultural nuances of animal-related language and images.


The Science of the Bat Origin

An image of the new coronavirus taken with an electron microscope. (Image Source 6)

Scientists have not confirmed whether bats are the natural host of the novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV (According to WHO, the official name of the virus responsible for COVID-19 is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” or “SARS-CoV-2” — see endnote 13; however, here we will refer to the virus as “2019-nCoV” in accordance with the discussed articles). A number of studies stated that the genome sequence of the virus is highly similar to that of the SARS coronaviruses carried by bats, but further investigation is needed. In this section, we will review several studies that presented detailed genomic-sequencing analyses of the virus.

Paraskevis et al.’s analysis proved that 2019-nCoV is closely related to a bat coronavirus (BatCoV RaTG13), and suggested a high possibility of a bat origin for the 2019-nCoV (Endnote 14).

Similarly, Lu et al. discovered the close relation between 2019-nCoV and two bat-derived SARS-like coronaviruses. They pointed out that although bats are a plausible candidate for the original host of the virus, wild animals sold at the Huanan Market might well have been the intermediate hosts that spread the virus to humans (Endnote 15).

Phylogenetic analysis of full-length genomes of 2019-nCoV shows its close relation to bat-derived coronaviruses. (Image Source 7)

Chan et al. confirmed 2019-nCoV’s close relation to bat coronaviruses, and contended that further analysis is needed to determine the novel virus’s natural animal reservoir and possible intermediate hosts (Endnote 16)

The hypothesis of transmitting via intermediate hosts was also raised by Zhou et al. (Endnote 17). They further mentioned that it is still not known how 2019-nCoV is transmitted among hosts, and animal experiments have yet to prove that the association between 2019-nCoV microbe and the disease fulfills Koch’s postulates (Endnote 18).

Li et al. discussed the genome plasticity of bat coronaviruses and their ability to achieve greater genetic diversity via mutations and recombination. Further, they stated that such diversity can raise the chance of transmission across different species (Endnote 19). If the 2019-nCoV did originate in bats, then the characteristics of bat coronaviruses described above would also apply to the 2019-nCoV.

Li et al. also supported the hypothesis that the 2019-nCoV is likely transmitted from bats to humans via an intermediate host. They also stated that further fieldwork is needed to test this hypothesis (Endnote 20).

A mural in the Chinese district of Rome shows an Asian woman wearing a protective suit saying, “There is an epidemic of ignorance around… We must protect ourselves” and holding a placard that reads #JeNeSuisPaSunVirus (I am not a virus), a hashtag created by French Asians in reaction to anti-Asian racism amid the coronavirus pandemic (Image Source 8)

While research shows a high possibility for 2019-nCoV to have a bat origin and intermediate mammalian hosts, none of the studies we have reviewed here could confirm the bat origin. The manner in which the virus was transmitted to humans remains a puzzle.

As we have seen since the start of the outbreak, fears about the coronavirus have provoked anti-Asian sentiment in many places. Misconceptions of Chinese eating practices are used to rationalize the dehumanization of a whole group of people. Yet, let’s not forget that what is deemed “acceptable” or “civilized” to eat and what’s not are a product of the interplay between culture and power. After all, someone like Andrew Zimmern, the host of the show “Bizarre Foods,” is never vilified as a savage for eating his way through all the “weird” food — including bats. Instead, he is portrayed and often praised as the “fearless eater.”


Endnotes: 

1. Steven Lee Myers, “China’s Omnivorous Markets Are in the Eye of a Lethal Outbreak Once Again.” New York Times. Published Jan. 25, 2020 & Updated Jan. 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/25/world/asia/china-markets-coronavirus-sars.html

2. Nectar Gan and Natalie Thomas, “Chen Qiushi spoke out about the Wuhan virus. Now his family and friends fear he’s been silenced.” CNN. Updated Feb. 10, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/09/asia/wuhan-citizen-journalist-intl-hnk/index.html

3. “Eww! Video of Chinese eating bats exposed.” Apple Daily. Published on Jan. 23, 2020. https://tw.appledaily.com/international/20200123/WAT7RJS3ZOUCSWPGM3GCAUZS5I/

4. Ben Cost, “Revolting video shows woman devouring bat amid coronavirus outbreak.” New York Post. Published Jan. 23, 2020. https://nypost.com/2020/01/23/revolting-video-shows-woman-devouring-bat-amid-coronavirus-outbreak/

5. “CAUGHT ON CAMERA: Eating a bat amid coronavirus epidemic.” Toronto Sun. Published Jan. 23, 2020. 

6. Lila Randall, “Coronavirus: Woman eats whole bat in disturbing footage after outbreak linked to soup.” Mirror. Published Jan. 24, 2020. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/coronavirus-woman-eats-whole-bat-21349468

7. Bettina Makalintal,”Coronavirus Fears Are Reviving Racist Ideas About Chinese food,” VICE. Published Jan.30, 2020. http://www.vice.com/en_us/article/4ag37q/coronavirus-fears-are-reviving-racist-ideas-about-chinese-food).

8. Laura Zhou, “‘Sorry about the tasty bat’: Chinese online host apologises for travel show dining advice as Wuhan virus spreads.” South China Morning Post. Published Jan. 26, 2020.  https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3047683/sorry-about-tasty-bat-chinese-online-host-apologises-travel-show

9. Is bat soup a delicacy in China? We debunk a rumour on the origin of the coronavirus.” The FRANCE 24 Observers. Published Feb. 3, 2020. https://observers.france24.com/en/20200203-china-coronavirus-bat-soup-debunk-videos-viral-palau-indonesia

10. Justin Baragona, “Fox News Host Claims Chinese People Eating ‘Raw Bats’ to Blame for Coronavirus.” Daily Beast. Published Mar. 02, 2020. 

11. James Palmer, “Don’t Blame Bat Soup for the Wuhan Virus.” Foreign Policy. Published on Jan. 27, 2020

12. Amanda Derrach, “The new coronavirus and racist tropes.” Columbia Journalism Review. Published on Feb. 25, 2020.

13. “Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it.” World Health Organizations. Available at:  https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/naming-the-coronavirus-disease-(covid-2019)-and-the-virus-that-causes-it

14. Paraskevis, Dimitrios, et al. “Full-genome evolutionary analysis of the novel corona virus (2019-nCoV) rejects the hypothesis of emergence as a result of a recent recombination event.” Infection, Genetics and Evolution 79 (2020): 104212. Published Jan. 29, 2020.

15. Lu, Roujian, et al. “Genomic characterisation and epidemiology of 2019 novel coronavirus: implications for virus origins and receptor binding.” The Lancet (2020). Published Jan. 30, 2020.

16. Chan, Jasper Fuk-Woo, et al. “Genomic characterization of the 2019 novel human-pathogenic coronavirus isolated from a patient with atypical pneumonia after visiting Wuhan.” Emerging Microbes & Infections 9.1 (2020): 221-236. Published on Jan. 28, 2020.

17. Zhou, P. et al. A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature. https:// doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2012-7 (2020). Published Feb 3. 2020.

18. Koch’s postulates were designed by the German physician Robert Koch in 1890 to judge whether a given bacteria is the cause of a given disease. Koch’s postulates include four criteria: 1) The bacteria must be present in every case of the disease; 2) The bacteria must be isolated from the host with the disease and grown in pure culture; 3) The specific disease must be reproduced when a pure culture of the bacteria is inoculated into a healthy susceptible host; 4) The bacteria must be recoverable from the experimentally infected host. Though Koch’s postulates have their limitations and may not hold in various situations, they are still a useful benchmark in judging whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship between a microorganism and a clinical disease. Other criteria such as the Bradford Hill criteria are often used for judging infectious disease causality. (https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=7105; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koch%27s_postulates)

19. Li, Bei, et al. “Discovery of Bat Coronaviruses through Surveillance and Probe Capture-Based Next-Generation Sequencing.” MSphere 5.1 (2020). Published Jan. 29, 2020

20. Li, Xiang, et al. “Bat origin of a new human coronavirus: there and back again.” Science China Life Sciences (2020): 1-2. Published Feb. 9, 2020.

Image Source:

1. Historical Photo Tour: The Chinese American Experience https://www.oakton.edu/user/4/billtong/chinaclass/history/phototour.htm

2. Qiushi Chen on Twitter. https://twitter.com/chenqiushi404/status/1219885244670607361?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1219885244670607361&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fnypost.com%2F2020%2F01%2F23%2Frevolting-video-shows-woman-devouring-bat-amid-coronavirus-outbreak%2F 

3. “Eww! Video of Chinese eating bats exposed.” Apple Daily. https://tw.appledaily.com/international/20200123/WAT7RJS3ZOUCSWPGM3GCAUZS5I/

4. “Is bat soup a delicacy in China? We debunk a rumour on the origin of the coronavirus” https://observers.france24.com/en/20200203-china-coronavirus-bat-soup-debunk-videos-viral-palau-indonesia

5. “Chinese influencer Wang Mengyun, aka ‘Bat soup girl’ breaks silence” https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/food/food-warnings/chinese-influencer-wang-mengyun-aka-bat-soup-girl-breaks-silence/news-story/63ef0cec5b6d448d1843e2e1bcadb14d

6. Credit:U.S. National Institutes of Health/AP/Shutterstock. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00705-1

7. Lu, Roujian, et al. “Genomic characterisation and epidemiology of 2019 novel coronavirus: implications for virus origins and receptor binding.” The Lancet. Published Jan. 30, 2020.

8. Photo: EPA-EFE. Accessed at: https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3051744/west-unleashes-new-strain-racism-name-coronavirus-prevention


The article was originally published as blog posts on Sinophobia Tracker, a site documenting the information on Sinophobia and the counter efforts against the trend during the COVID-19 outbreak. The original text has been edited.

Proofreader: Maxwell Joslyn, Huiyin
Editor: Joyce
Typesetting: Jiara

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