With great knowledge of bats comes great responsibility
With great knowledge of bats comes great responsibility
by Josephine M. Bo

He probably knows bats more than the back of his hand. Afterall, straight out of college since 24 years ago, he has been studying them.

It is this knowledge that associate professor Phillip A. Alviola will take into the newly established Scientific Advisory Groups for the Origins on Novel Pathogens or SAGO of the World Health Organization (WHO).

SAGO is tasked to advise the WHO Secretariat on technical and scientific considerations regarding emerging and re-emerging pathogens.

It is composed of 28 experts of which Alviola is the lone bat ecologist. 

The rest are experts in epidemiology, animal health, ecology, clinical medicine, virology, genomics, molecular epidemiology, molecular biology, biology, food safety, biosafety, biosecurity, and public health as the WHO website said.

“SAGO will create a global framework to guide the world on what to do to prevent and to preempt the emergence of pathogens, especially WHO-priority diseases with pandemic or epidemic potentials,” said Alviola.

Part of SAGO’s work, Alviola explained, is to look into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. How the virus escaped from bats and caused this already two-year-old pandemic is still a subject of international debate.

Getting a seat in SAGO

Becoming part of SAGO was no mean feat.

Afterall, it is on this advisory group that a better understanding of COVID-19 and a more effective response to preempt future pandemics partly rests.

Alviola was one of 800 individuals from more than 100 countries around the world who applied for a seat in the advisory body after WHO issued a call for experts on Sept. 8, 2021.

Upon the proddings of partners from the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology, Alviola applied for a seat in SAGO.

His expertise on bats had come to the fore in the midst of the pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, he had been tapped in lecture circuits in UPLB and in the country by people desperate to know how things came to pass and how bats have something to do with the scourge.

Bats are known reservoirs of coronaviruses, which could include SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Alviola has contributed much to the body of knowledge through long years of research on the subject, many of which had been published in highly regarded scientific journals.

His work had earned him the 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist Award of the National Academy of Science and Technology. He is also on the list of most cited scientists from the Philippines based on Google Scholar.

“Critical work at a critical time”

SAGO’s work, which WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described as “critical work at a critical time,” will not only provide a rigorous and standardized process for studying novel and re-emerging pathogens.

According to Ghebreyesus, it will also bring back the focus of the work “squarely back to science and not be infected by politics as it has SARS-CoV-2, causing a serious barrier to the scientific process of understanding where the virus came from.” 

If you come to think of it, Alviola’s body of work has always been critical work at a critical time, focusing as he has on ecology, biodiversity, conservation, discovery and description of new animal species, and cave biology, among others, and all crucial to man’s continued existence.

The bulk of his contributions has gone toward increasing knowledge about bats and bat virology, potential zoonotic viruses, and pathogens of bats.

In fact, Alviola and his partners from Japanese universities are collaborating on developing a simulation model to predict the next bat-derived coronavirus infection in humans with samples gathered from as early as 2007.

His body of work reflects the urgent and critical need for science to find solutions to and avert problems created by what he said is the narrowing interface between men and animals.

During what is probably one of the darkest periods in our collective history, Alviola stepped up to contribute to the “critical work” that SAGO is now doing. This is a responsibility that was conferred on him by his knowledge of bats.