A one-of-a-kind bat research facility is coming to Colorado State University with the potential for groundbreaking discoveries as scientists study how bats respond to viruses — and what that could mean for treating sickness in humans.
The National Institutes of Health awarded CSU $6.7 million toward the 14,000-square-foot facility, slated for completion in 2025 at the university’s Foothills Campus on the west side of Fort Collins.
The space is intended to mimic natural bat habitats, becoming one of few places in the world equipped to breed bat colonies, enabling scientists to have a baseline of knowledge about the animals’ age, health and other information needed to collect accurate data.
“It’s absolutely critical work,” said Tom Monath, a virologist and chief science officer at the pharmaceutical company Crozet and former vector-borne infectious disease director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But as scientists buzz about future pioneering bat research — including vaccine development, drug testing and how to guard against future pandemic threats — plans for the lab have generated controversy in a way that wouldn’t have been seen before the pandemic. Conservative pundits and politicos in Colorado have seized on the bat research facility, with some spreading misinformation and trying to draw parallels to the virology lab in Wuhan, China, at the center of the debate over COVID-19’s origins.
CSU researchers say they’re working to better educate the public about the important work that will be done at the Fort Collins facility and the safety measures that will be in place. Some of the claims made about the lab, the head of the project said, are “beyond ridiculous.”
“We as professionals and scientists have to figure out a way to be as transparent as we possibly can without compromising the safety and security of research,” said Rebecca Moritz, CSU’s biosafety director and president of the American Biological Safety Association International. “Studies show people have a tendency to believe the mis- and disinformation before they believe the truth. How can we figure out how to talk more about this? To talk more about how oversight of research works, to talk more about all the layers of safety and security with it and try and make it part of the common vernaculars.”
Last month, the Libertarian Party of Colorado decried the facility as a “bioweapons lab” in a tweet. (The party’s Twitter account has since been suspended from the social media service. Communications director Jordan Marinovich said Twitter told the state party that the account broke rules against violent speech, but didn’t provide evidence of any violation.)
“Health officials, whether intentionally or not, misled the public on important aspects of the pandemic and the response,” Marinovich wrote in a statement to The Denver Post when asked why the party incorrectly characterized the lab as a bioweapons facility. “Such matters include: the origin of SARS-COV2, the effectiveness of masks, lockdowns, school and business closures, the effectiveness of vaccines and more. This undermines trust in health institutions to conduct this research properly.”
Greg Ebel, a CSU virologist and project leader for the bat research facility, said he has seen misinformation about the facility circulating, but dismissed the claims.
“This isn’t a bat COVID lab,” Ebel said. “It’s not a bioweapons lab. We’re not working with Ebola or Nipah virus or any of these things. I’m not interested in losing my job or going to jail or interested in doing research that’s going to carry home pathogens to my wife or my child. Those kinds of things are beyond ridiculous.”
Sherronna Bishop, former campaign manager for Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, said in January during her web show “America’s Mom” that since the pandemic, nothing concerns people more than hearing that a research lab is going into their backyard.
“Fort Collins is not exactly moving down a conservative path in any way, shape or form, and to go from their transgender ideology to now their bat institution… are people just feeling the disconnect between the elected officials and themselves?” Bishop said during the show.
Former Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl dedicated a May episode of her “Unleashed with Heidi Ganahl” podcast — titled “Has Colorado Gone Bat (Expletive) Crazy?” — to air her concerns about the facility, centered on what she said were plans to perform “gain-of-function” research there.
Gain-of-function is a type of research in which an organism gains a new function, such as grass being modified to be more tolerant to drought, CSU officials said. In virology, it can involve making a virus more transmissible for research purposes in an effort to better prepare a public health response.
CSU officials insist they do not plan to conduct gain-of-function research on bats that could increase the transmission of a virus or other pathogens to humans.
“My podcast is about informing Coloradans, why wouldn’t I?” Ganahl wrote to The Post when asked why she made the episode. “It’s a very relevant topic after many millions died in the last few years from this pandemic that was likely caused by a lab leak, and many in CO are not aware of this lab or the expansion” of CSU’s existing bat research.
The U.S. intelligence community remains divided over how the COVID-19 pandemic began, with four agencies believing the virus was transferred from animals to humans, and two agencies — the Energy Department and the FBI — contending the virus leaked from the Wuhan lab.
“A way to get people riled up”
The backlash against CSU’s research comes at a time when professionals across the nation — including librarians, teachers, doctors and scientists — are facing harassment, restrictive legislation or firings for doing their jobs.
Jim Newman, with the nonprofit Americans for Medical Progress, is a nationally-recognized leader in helping researchers navigate misinformation campaigns and related safety concerns.
“I never would have believed 20 years ago that this is even more of a problem in the post-COVID world — misunderstanding and misinformation,” Newman said. “Some of it is weaponizing and sometimes it is a way to get people riled up and scared, and that’s really unfortunate.”
CSU’s bat facility will be a biosafety Level 2 building, meaning the pathogens inside pose a potential “moderate risk” to staff if accidentally inhaled, ingested or exposed to skin. A number of safety requirements and university, state and federal regulations are mandated within these so-called BSL-2 buildings, including specific decontamination procedures, the use of filtered ventilation when appropriate and self-closing doors, according to the CDC.
BSL-2 buildings are common at universities, Moritz said. In Colorado, the University of Colorado Boulder, CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus, the University of Denver and CSU’s multiple campuses all have labs that meet BSL-2 standards.
Additionally, CSU already has maintained a bat colony for more than a decade, but the new facility will allow for an expansion of that research.
Future projects at the facility are expected to examine how coronaviruses, paramyxoviruses and flu viruses infect bats without making the animals sick.
“We really are considered nationally recognized for our infectious disease research,” Moritz said. “People forgot that there is so much oversight over what these researchers do. They aren’t mad scientists in the lab dreaming all this stuff up and willy-nilly doing what they want.”
Ebel, the project’s leader, said that in addition to being important pollinators and pest controllers, bats are hosts to a number of viruses, from coronaviruses to rabies, but have the ability to carry the viruses without getting sick. Scientists don’t know what protects bats from getting sick, which is part of the question CSU scientists hope to investigate.
“It just makes sense we would be interested in studying the animals responsible for some of these really challenging viruses that emerge on an ongoing basis,” Ebel said.
“Straight out of ‘Jurassic Park’”
Christine Bowman has questions.
She learned about the bat facility after a friend who lives near the university received mail from CSU letting them know about the project and inviting them to attend a public meeting approving the building. So Bowman attended the meeting and said her concerns about the lab were not assuaged.
“Why do we have to play with nature?” Bowman said. “I think it’s too soon to shove this down the public’s throat and put the community at risk. I’m not a scientist, but I say all the time I have a Ph.D. in common sense.”
Bowman started a Facebook group called Covid Bat Research Moratorium of Colorado, which now has more than 600 members. Bowman is asking for CSU to pause building the facility until Congress determines how the pandemic started and whether the planned Fort Collins facility would pose a risk of starting another one.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should,” Bowman said. “This is straight out of ‘Jurassic Park.’”
But the main concerns Bowman expressed — worries about gain-of-function research, misgivings about the types of diseases the university will be working with and unease about a researcher carrying a pathogen into the community — are addressed in a Frequently Asked Questions document the university put on its website.
The FAQ has a section about why bat research is important, details on the facility, information about the research the university plans to do and explanations of biosafety.
“Ebola, Marburg or Nipah viruses will not be studied in the new building or at any CSU laboratory,” the university wrote in the FAQ. “CSU does not and cannot possess these viruses. Our facilities are not built to research these viruses.”
Bowman was interviewed on Ganahl and Bishop’s shows, during which she shared the email addresses of CSU scientists and encourages listeners to “inundate” them with questions.
“We’re not being ugly about this,” Bowman told The Post. “We just want assurances or guarantees about the safety of this kind of research. I’m not going to harass any one person. I’m not going to picket when they break ground. I’m not taking to the streets. I want facts.”
Biosafety director Moritz said she made a decision long ago to have a light online profile because she knew about the possibility of scientific harassment.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate,” Moritz said. “I wish we could just focus on the science.”
Ebel said he came to CSU 15 years ago because of the university’s work in this field.
“What we’re building is going to be a first-rate, safe facility to house and breed bats and there’s a real dire need right now for the research those animals are going to facilitate,” Ebel said. “As a society, we have really big problems, and they’re going to be very complex to fix and confront, and CSU is a great place for this particular piece of that to be done. We have a chance to contribute to some studies that really will make things better and help us understand the way the world works.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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