Night began to fall in Rio de Janeiro's Pedra Branca state park as four Brazilian scientists switched on their flashlights to traipse along a narrow trail of mud through dense rainforest. The researchers were on a mission: capture bats and help prevent the next global pandemic.
A few meters ahead, nearly invisible in the darkness, a bat made high-pitched squeaks as it strained its wings against the thin nylon net that had ensnared it. One of the researchers removed the bat, which used its pointed teeth to bite her gloved fingers.
The November nighttime outing was part of a project at Brazil's state-run Fiocruz Institute to collect and study viruses present in wild animals - including bats, which many scientists believe were linked to the outbreak of COVID-19.
The goal now is to identify other viruses that may be highly contagious and lethal in humans, and to use that information to devise plans to stop them from ever infecting people - to forestall the next potential global disease outbreak before it gets started.
In a highly connected world, an outbreak in one place endangers the entire globe, just as the coronavirus did. And the Brazilian team is just one among many worldwide racing to minimise the risk of a second pandemic this century.
It's no coincidence that many disease scientists are focusing attention on bats, the the world's only flying mammals. Bats are thought to be the original or intermediary hosts for multiple viruses that have spawned recent epidemics, including SARS, MERS, Ebola, Nipah virus, Hendra virus and Marburg virus.
"People have a lot of misconceptions about bats. They're nocturnal and look a little weird flying," said Hannah Kim Frank, a biologist at Tulane University. "But bats aren't aggressive - and attacking bats doesn't help control diseases." Bats also play vital roles in ecosystems: They consume insects like mosquitos, pollinate plants like agave, and disperse seeds.