Earlier this week, the old Prince of Darkness Ozzy Osbourne took to his Instagram account to commemorate an infamous event in his long, rich career – the moment he bit the head off a bat while on stage at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium (now the Iowa Events Center) in Des Moines, Iowa. As part of his social media commemoration, he posted a picture of a new plush stuffed animal — a bat with a removable head, of course — that his fans could presumably buy somewhere.
For those of you unfamiliar with this legend-making moment, the incident occurred January 20 1982 while Ozzy Osbourne was on a tour of America. A 2016 article in the Des Moines Register provides a pretty succinct summary:
“The bat in Des Moines, however, was most certainly dead, closer to rancid, according to Mark Neal. He was 17 at the time he tossed the bat corpse on stage. Neal’s younger brother had brought the bat home from school, alive and flapping, about two weeks before the concert. No surprise that the bat failed as a household pet. So Neal’s friends, aware of Osbourne’s carnivorous reputation, convinced the impressionable lad to seal the bat remains in a baggy and tuck them inside his coat.” (Source)
The bat landed in front of Ozzy’s bass player, Rudy Sarzo, who motioned for the singer to take a look. In fact, you could say he did more than that. He took a massive bite, decapitating the dead bat. (As an aside, can you imagine how hard and committed a bite it had to be to actually break through skin, muscle, tendon, and bone? It’s impressive and revolting at the same time.) While Osbourne has always insisted that the bat was alive, it seems unlikely considering how the bat arrived on stage. Either way, by all counts it was a terrible the experience.
“Immediately, though, something felt wrong. Very wrong. For a start, my mouth was instantly full of this warm, gloopy liquid, with the worst aftertaste you could ever imagine,” he wrote in his memoir, “I Am Ozzy.” “I could feel it staining my teeth and running down my chin. Then the head in my mouth twitched . . .” (Source)
After the show, Osbourne was rushed to the local hospital where he was treated for rabies exposure. Thanks to post-exposure rabies shots, the rocker was able to avoid the ignominious effects of having the virus invade his nervous system and transforming him into a twitchy, mindless mess. He’s got one of the fathers of modern science to thank for that. But which vaccine he received is a little less clear since the early 1980s was something of a transition period for the treatment.
In 1885, Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux, developed the first rabies vaccination and used it to treat a boy named Joseph Meister who had been mauled by a rabid dog. At that time, rabies infections were 100% fatal. The injection involved attenuated (weakened) rabies virus was derived from the spinal cord of an inoculated rabbit which had died of rabies 15 days earlier. Treatment with the Pasteur-Roux vaccine started with a subcutaneous injection on 6 July 1885, at 8:00 pm, which was followed with 12 additional doses administered over the following 10 days. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rabies vaccines made from neural tissue like the Pasteur-Roux vaccine continued to be the most prevalent version, though the source normally came from brain tissue as opposed to spinal tissue. The vaccines had cost on their side. However, they were also known to have uncomfortable side effects. About 35 to 45 percent of people developed a brief period of redness and pain at the injection site, and 5 to 15 percent of people experienced fever, headaches, or nausea. In addition, since they consisted of weakened live rabies viruses, on rare occasions, some people became infected from the shot. (Source)
From the mid-fifties to the early 1980s, a common alternative to the nerve-tissue derived rabies vaccines came from purified duck embryos (PDEV). They were developed in order to reduce vaccine reactions stemming from nervous tissue based vaccines. Unfortunately, the PDEV was less immunogenic, meaning the immune reaction to them was less robust and less protective.
At about the time the Prince of Darkness made his unceremonious visit to a Des Moines hospital, the first of what is now considered modern rabies vaccines was beginning to be administered. A vaccine derived from human diploid cell vaccine (HDCV) was manufactured that was safer than nerve-tissue vaccines and had greater efficacy than the PDEV. Unlike the other vaccines, the HDCV was an inactivated vaccine, meaning it did not have actual live viruses in them. However, at that time it was considered too expensive for widespread adoption.
Today, newer and less expensive purified chicken embryo cell vaccines (CCEEV) and purified Vero cell rabies vaccines are now available and are recommended for use by the WHO. in addition to post-exposure treatment with a rabies vaccine, patients also receive a dose of rabies immunoglobulin.
So back to the Ozzy rabies vaccine question. Which one did he receive on that fateful day in January 1982? Most likely the vaccine derived from duck embryos we’d say since it was the safest at the time and adoption of the HDCV version was in its early, very slow stages.
And what does Ozzy have to say about the incident? He’s philosophical about it and acknowledges he’ll forever be asked about the bat as long as he lives.
“And then they’ll dig me up and ask me again!” he moans.
Homo Scientificus blog is written by Marc Landas.