A Hanging Question: What is the Link Between Bats and COVID-19

For Southeastern Magazine’s Spring 2020 issue, we sat down with Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Dr. Teague O’Mara to discuss his extensive research on bats—including their movements and impacts on ecosystems and people. Since that short time ago, the rapid rise of the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a wave of questions and concerns over the potential link between the virus’s origins and these small flying mammals.
To address this, we asked O’Mara to explain from a scientific standpoint the real connection between bats and COVID-19.


While there are a lot of uncertainties about COVID-19, the origin of this virus is commonly thought to be from bats. But is this necessarily true?

At the outset of this current pandemic, scientists were able to quickly and effectively sequence the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Thanks to broad efforts by the One Health Institute, the CDC, WHO, and others that have tried to document different types of viruses across the world, we’ve found the most closely related virus. This virus was isolated from an insect-feeding horseshoe bat and
called RaTG13.

These two viruses separated from each other approximately 50 years ago. This means that despite its recent outbreak, SARS-CoV-2 didn’t appear overnight; it has been spending time in another species since it left bats and before it infected humans.

SARS-CoV-2 didn’t jump directly from bats to humans, but we don’t know what the intermediate host is yet. It is curious that the spike protein that lets the virus enter human cells is much more similar to a coronavirus from a Malayan pangolin (a relative of the armadillo and anteaters) than any other bat virus, even though the entire SARS-CoV-2 genome is more similar to the bat virus. So, the origin of COVID-19 is still under active investigation.

But why are the new viruses that seem to have massive effects on humans so closely associated with bats? Recent work has shown that bats don’t necessarily harbor more viruses than other animals. There are over 1,400 species of bats (25 percent of all mammals), and the number of viruses any group of mammals has is proportional to the number of species in that group.

Bats are often linked (sometimes very weakly) to outbreaks of new infections. This is likely because bats have supercharged immune systems. They are able to master a wide range of infections, largely due to their ability to minimize their inflammatory response and seek and destroy DNA damaging free radicals in a way that no dose of antioxidant foods could even come close to handling. This makes understanding their immune systems and inflammatory control incredibly interesting to try and harness the molecular mechanisms they’ve come by naturally for our own health. It is also why we find antibodies that show bat immune systems have seen the virus, but there are no actual active viruses. Viruses that find their way into bat species and do manage to make a living must compensate for this incredible immune system.

Occasionally when a virus manages to escape from bats into an intermediate host, amplify and mutate, and then come in contact with humans, these zoonotic infections can be dramatic because we have not had a long evolutionary history with the virus. Measles, which had its origins in a cow virus, is one such virus that is well known.

Regardless of which animal species a zoonotic virus comes from, when viruses jump from animals to humans it’s almost always because of humans encroaching on them, not because they have invaded our space. Bats control our pest insects, pollinate the plants that give us tequila, and disperse seeds across the landscape—all for free. The incredible adaptations of their immune systems might also give us answers to longer, healthier lives. But to allow all of this to happen, it is important that we take care in how we treat them and provide them with enough space to do their work.

By Dr. Teague O’Mara

Student Reporters Honored in the Louisiana Press Association Better Newspaper Competition

The student staff of The Lion’s Roar, Southeastern Louisiana University’s student-run newspaper, garnered six awards in June from the Louisiana Press Association’s Better Newspaper Competition. Awards are presented annually during the LPA annual convention, but due to the current global health crisis, the organization decided to cancel the awards presentation this year.

The Lion’s Roar staff received awards for Best Overall Website and General Excellence, placing second in both categories. Thirty-nine LPA member publications, including college and university student newspapers, submitted 1,138 entries judged by the Nebraska Press Association.

Individual staff members receiving recognition include Symiah Dorsey, a communication sophomore from La Place, and Maiah Woodring, a biological science junior from Albany. Dorsey placed second in the Best Single Editorial category for her piece titled “Dorm residents need community kitchens,” while Woodring received a third place prize in the same category for her piece titled “Living without a phone, my life hack.”
“Being a student journalist is a gift that continues to give. There is not a single story I have written that I have not gained new knowledge or perspective from, and that is the beauty of being a reporter,” said Dorsey. “Being a part of The Lion’s Roar family is a blessing. Together, we create a platform that calls for greater tolerance and a deeper understanding of people in our community. Upon rereading my editorial on community kitchens, I realize how much I have grown. There is nothing I want more now than to continue growing while I challenge myself. Each story is a chance to become a better voice for those around me.”
“It is a great honor for The Lion’s Roar newspaper to receive these awards from the Louisiana Press Association,” said Editor in Chief of The Lion’s Roar Prakriti Adhikari, a senior accounting major from Hammond. “We have a team of dedicated staff who strive to do their job in the best way possible, and receiving these awards shows that working hard is always worth it. I am very proud of the entire staff for the recognition of our hard work and dedication.”

Adhikari acknowledged The Lion’s Roar and its shift to remote work during the latter months of the spring 2020 semester and the summer 2020 term. The dedicated staff continued to offer news and information to the Southeastern community, she said.

“This is a moment for all of us to be very proud,” Adhikari continued. “Despite going through a challenging time last semester after shifting to remote work, we were able to produce our weekly content. We are being rewarded for the quality content we have been able to produce. These awards are further proof that when we come together as a group and help each other succeed, we can achieve a lot.”

Other awards received by The Lion’s Roar were first place in the Best Sports Photo category, awarded to former staff reporter Hailey Bullock of Albany, and second place in the Best Front Page category awarded to Annie Goodman of Denham Springs, former editor in chief of The Lion’s Roar.

“Our talented student editors and reporters serve our campus community in innumerable ways,” said Dr. Lee E. Lind, director of Student Publications. “I’m so very proud of the well-deserved recognition they have earned.”

Readers can access content produced by student staff reporters through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @lionsroarnews, issuu.com, and via the newspaper’s website, lionsroarnews.com.

Southeastern Professor Awarded Fulbright Scholar Grant

Southeastern Professor of Biology Roldán Valverde has been named a Fulbright Scholar, which will allow him to perform research and undergraduate level teaching in Spain next year.

Established in 1946, the Fulbright Scholar Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and allows American scholars and professionals to lecture and research in a wide range of fields.

“Dr. Valverde has dedicated his professional life to the study of sea turtles,” said Dean of the College of Science and Technology Daniel McCarthy. “Not only is he an internationally renowned scholar for his scientific work, but he is also well known for his dedication to sea turtle conservation. He already serves as the scientific director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, so it is no surprise that Dr. Valverde received this prestigious award.”

A specialist in the reproductive and stress endocrinology of sea turtles, as well as the nesting ecology of sea turtles, Valverde will be working at the Universidad de Las Palmas de La Gran Canaria in Spain. He will teach a class in Marine Ecology, a third year course in the undergraduate curriculum at ULPGC, and he is looking forward to the new experiences the grant will afford him.

“Taking part in this highly valuable opportunity will provide me with the energy and inspiration I need to develop new courses here in the U.S., such as marine biology, a course I think is going to be a hit, especially now that the oceans are in peril due to human activities,” Valverde said. “While at ULPGC, I am teaching a course in marine ecology. Marine biology and marine ecology share similar topics, and the latter can be very instrumental in the development of a course in marine biology in my department.”

As part of the grant, Valverde will also give four, one-hour seminars about his research specialty, an opportunity he welcomes to present his long-term research projects to students and colleagues alike.

“The presentation topics are ‘The Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles,’ ‘The Role of Vitellogenin in the Reproductive Physiology of Sea Turtles,’ ‘The Reproductive Ecology of Sea Turtles,’ and ‘The Evolution of Structure and Function of the Endocrine Stress Response.’”

While in Spain, Valverde will instruct students and colleagues on how to run testosterone and estrogen assays (the chemical analysis of a substance) to sex juvenile sea turtles. He will also instruct them on how to run the vitellogenin (the serum phospholipoglycoprotein precursor to egg yolk) assay.

“I developed this assay in my lab, and it is currently the only functional vitellogenin assay that has been used to measure this protein in wild sea turtle populations,” he said. “The implementation of this assay in Spain will help support studies of the reproductive physiology of sea turtles in that region of the world.”

In addition to his normal teaching duties, research, and serving as the scientific director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, Valverde also collaborates with departmental colleagues to teach study abroad courses in Costa Rica. At the Sea Turtle Conservancy, Valverde’s mission is to oversee the scientific programs with emphasis on the biological stations in Tortuguero, Costa Rica and in the Bocas del Toro region in Panama.

“As a professor and as scientific director, my students and colleagues take advantage of the collaborative experiences and opportunities that I make available to them, which has helped me create a rich personal network to promote the advancement of our knowledge of sea turtle biology and conservation,” he said.

Latin American Initiative Aids Relief Efforts for Families in Need

The Hispanic community has been one of the most impacted by COVID-19, not only with health issues but also by unemployment—and consequently basic needs such as lack of food for their families.

Southeastern’s Latin American Initiative, led by College of Business Instructor Dr. Aristides Baraya in alliance with the Killian First Baptist Church Food Pantry, has come to the rescue, providing basic food for multiple Hispanic families.

More than 75 people have benefited so far from this initiative that will continue to support Hispanic families in need and with limited financial resources.

“In these difficult times, serving and giving needed help to the Hispanic community is a great pleasure. Hispanics require everyone’s help and support,” said Killian First Baptist Church Food Pantry’s David Crowell.

“We are pleased that we have been able to develop these alliances that have enabled us to expand our community services for Hispanic people in our Parish,” Baraya explained.
According to Pew Research Center, Louisiana is home to approximately 222,000 people who identify as Hispanic. The Latino and the Hispanic community is one of the fastest-growing segments in America this decade.

The Latin American Business Development Initiative at Southeastern Louisiana University is dedicated to advancing global education among the University’s students and the Latin American population, supporting the American Hispanic community in the United States and developing closer international relations between Louisiana and Latin American countries.

Top image, from left: Monica Monarrez; Veronica Hernandez, Hispanics Family Group; David Crowell, Killian First Baptist Church; and Dr. Aristides Baraya, director of Southeastern’s Latin American Initiative.

Launching the Industry Connect Distinguished Lecture Series

Southeastern Louisiana University’s Department of Computer Science is offering a new Industry Connect Distinguished Lecture Series, the department recently announced.

“The series will feature industry experts serving to introduce our students, faculty and interested guests to technologies currently used in industry that can be utilized immediately in Southeastern’s industry connect classes or in personal projects, thereby connecting the theory of a university degree with state-of-the-industry and current leaders in the field,” said Bonnie Achee, undergraduate coordinator and instructor in the Department of Computer Science.

Scheduled Sept. 17 from 4 to 5 p.m., the premiere lecture in the series will take place in the Envoc Innovation Lab, room 2026 in the Computer Science and Technology Building. Although maximum capacity for the event is 36, all are invited to join in via Google Meet.

The first featured speaker is William Assef of Sparkhound, who will share his expertise on databases for developers with all interests, Achee said.

For more information, contact the Department of Computer Science at

Top Image: Envoc Innovation Lab

2020-2021 GOLD Council

The Southeastern Alumni Association is excited to announce the newly appointed 2020-2021 GOLD (Graduates Of the Last Decade) Council members.

New members include Justin Archote of Independence; Tara Bennett and Taylor Marceaux of Hammond; Maya Garnier of Plaquemine; Alyssa Larose of Kenner; Mitchell Rabalais of Baton Rouge; and Austin Rogers of Denham Springs.

Returning members include Neil Bourgeois of Springfield, Mo.; Marci Gaines Bradley and Keturah Green of Baton Rouge; David Cavell of Thibodeaux; Allie Dyer, Kaityln Seiler, and Anna Strider of Mandeville; Baylen Fontenot of New Orleans; Larshell Green and Yazmyn Smith of Hammond; Christopher Jackler and Kati Morse of Ponchatoula; Kent Landacre, Jr., of Prairieville; Seth Leto of Loranger; and Renee Picou of Livingston.

Executive Director of Alumni Relations Michelle Biggs said the GOLD Council is dedicated to fostering and sustaining relationships with graduates from Southeastern of the last decade to keep them engaged and actively involved with the University.

“We were very pleased with the continued interest in this initiative, further proving that our alumni want to stay actively engaged,” said Biggs. “Members are selected on the basis of their former campus involvement, professional experience, and community engagement, taking into consideration a broad representation of class years, geographic location, ethnic diversity, and gender.”

Biggs said the council advises the Office of Alumni Relations and assists with developing programs and communications tailored to the newest alumni. It also acts to shepherd the development of volunteers and future leaders in ways that deepen their commitment to Southeastern and prepare them for active alumni leadership roles.

Members are selected from a body of former students who have graduated from Southeastern within the last 10 years. They serve a two-year term with the option of serving two terms.

Click here to learn more about the Southeastern GOLD Council.