Can Humans Give Coronavirus to Bats, and Other Wildlife?

Many people worry about bats as a source of viruses, including the one that has caused a worldwide pandemic. But another question is surfacing: Could humans pass the novel coronavirus to wildlife, specifically North American bats?

It may seem like the last pandemic worry right now, far down the line after concerns about getting sick and staying employed. But as the spread of the novel coronavirus has made clear, the more careful we are about viruses passing among species, the better off we are.

The scientific consensus is that the virus originated in bats in China or neighboring countries. A recent paper tracing the genetic lineage of the novel virus found evidence that it probably evolved in bats into its current form. The researchers also concluded that either this coronavirus or others that could make the jump to humans are likely present in bat populations now — we just haven’t found them yet.

So why worry about infecting new bats with the current virus? The federal government considers it a legitimate concern both for bat populations, which have been devastated by a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome, and for humans, given potential problems down the road.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service, two agencies involved in research on bats, took the issue seriously enough to convene a panel of 12 experts to analyze the likelihood of human-to-bat transmission of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, in North America.

Another team of scientists, mostly from the two agencies, assessed the expert opinions and issued a report

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Updated July 27, 2020

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As to the susceptibility of North American bats, Dr. Olival was not aware of any published work on whether they can be infected with the virus. Researchers in Hong Kong have reported that in a lab the coronavirus infected the intestinal cells of Chinese rufous horseshoe bats. A report this month in The Lancet found that fruit bats could become infected with the virus.

Beyond bats, Dr. Olival said that scientists should be concerned about how they conduct research on wildlife in general and consider what precautions to take to avoid potentially infecting one species or another. One step, he said, would be evaluating research goals to weigh what level of contact would be necessary.

In some cases, he said, observation and data recording could be done without handling animals. If not, gloves and other precautions make sense, although some “old-school” researchers have balked at the suggestions, he said.

He said his group continues to recommend, “the highest level of personal protective equipment when you work with wildlife, because it’s not just a risk that you will pick up something from the wildlife, but that you don’t give something back to them.”

He acknowledged that research precautions with wildlife will have a very small effect, given the greater number of people who hunt wildlife or come into contact in other ways. Education efforts are underway to try to change some of those practices; in addition that, he said, researchers “should set some kind of standard.”

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