Right now there is not a rich depth of scientific research to guide us to determine if North American bats can get infected with the SARS-COV-2 virus which is currently spreading through the world as the disease known as Covid19. Indeed there is not a lot to tell us if any other wild or domestic animal can get infected with SARS-COV-2.
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses and have been segregated into several groups: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta by epidemiologists. SARS-COV-2 falls into the betacoronoviruses which infect a large range of mammalian families. It stands to reason that we should take precautions to prevent infection of wild and domestic animals just as we should take precautions to prevent infection of family, neighbors, colleagues, and the worker at the corner store.
Preliminary research into COVID19 and a short history of SARS-COV-1 back in 2004, leads us to believe that the SARS-COV-2 came to evolve into human populations via a zoonotic source, possibly from a reservoir of horseshoe bats (Family: Rhinolophidae) via a third party species, perhaps from pangolins (F: Manidae). SARS-COV-1 was thought to evolve via masked palm civet (P. larvata) (F: Viverridae) also from a natural reservoir in horseshoe bats. Similarly the virus was detected in raccoon dogs (N. procyonoides) (F: Canidae).
I do not know of any horseshoe bats in North America, but that does not preclude humans spreading the virus to other species. Recently a number of big cats at a zoo have been assumed positive for COVID19 infection from a zoo employee who had been infected when working with the big cats.
Additional evidence does indicate that not all mammal species should be susceptible to infection from SARS-COV-2, but does point to the fact that it should likely be confined to mammals and further more likely to infect a few known families of mammals Felidae (cats and civets), Canidae ( dogs [domestic d., African wild d., bush d., raccoon d.], wolves, coyotes, foxes, jackals), Mustelidae (weasels, badgers, otters, ferrets, martens, minks, and wolverines), Suindae (wild boar and domestic swine), Rhinolophidae (Horseshoe Bats) and the whole order of Primates (Lemuridae, Lorisidae, Tarsiidae, Callitrichidae, Cebidae, Cercopithecidae, Hylobatidae, Pongidae and of course Hominidae). What is not so clear is if any of the rest of the orders of mammals or 19 other families of Chiroptera can get infected with the virus. It looks like the Vespertilionidae may be exempt from infection which is a family within a super family of 14 families of bats which do not include horseshoe bats. Horseshoe bats are part of a super family of bats (Rhinolophoidea) none of which live in North America.
Comprehensive guidance is needed for animal workers during a pandemic with a Zoonotic Source virus which is novel for most of the the world’s immune systems. Not only can this virus overwhelm hospitals with waves of patients exceeding care capacity, but also this virus could overwhelm domestic animal care facilities. Wild animals do not have a health care system to overwhelm, so any pandemic in wildlife cannot be mitigated by social distancing. The same number will likely become sick and die regardless of the rate at which they become infected.
In an abundance of caution, several state wildlife agencies have provided guidance that bat research which involves bat contact and close proximity be suspended and that wild bat health care facilities and volunteer organizations should cease intake of bats into care and encourage euthanasia for injured bats in lieu of care.
This will be a hard thing to ask researchers to give up their lively hood for a time, but I imagine that they will feel compelled to comply just as we all are making adjustments to our work. Some will find other work. This will be a more difficult thing to ask wild animal health care workers as this is a thing which they feel so compelled to do that many are strictly voluntary wild animal health care workers. The most difficult thing is to ask those who work in zoos or wild animal parks to forgo care to personally known animals and possibly euthanize those which become injured.
I am in favor of taking all precautions in the interaction of animal workers and wildlife. I would expect that a wildlife animal healthcare worker would need to take all the appropriate precautions that a human healthcare worker would need to take when working with infected humans regardless of the species unless significant science rules one out.
What I have not yet come to understand is the singular focus on wild bats to the exclusion of all other wild or domestic animal health care work and research.
- As cats are known to become infected with SARS-COV-2, why are domestic cats, during this time of compulsory social distancing, allowed to roam uninhibited and infect wildlife and humans alike?
- Is it not a reasonably similar risk that one of the species of bobcats, coyotes, foxes, weasels, badgers, otters, ferrets, martens, minks and skunks can also become infected and similarly be affected as a population and harbor a wild viral reservoir?
- Is this singular focus due to overwhelming concern for our North American species of bats which are hard hit by WNS?
- Is it due to the fear of unique reservoirs created by unique immune systems of bats due to adaptations to flight?
- Or is it vestiges of prejudice against bats that have yet to be overcome even by the scientific community?
- One nugget of information is that “bats” are a very diverse “group” or clade which has been “lumped” together for educational purposes. One species of bat may be related to another species of bat as much as one as a human may be related to any other primate. What is interesting… is that from a strictly genetic perspective, Rhinolophidae (horseshoe bats) are likely more related to Felidae (cats) than you and me, are related to Elephantidae (elephants)… so who can be infected? All “bats” are not all the same, no more than you and I are related to those with long noses. I can’t say that Elephants, Humans, Bats and Cats cannot get infected but … who is allowed to say (without the actual research) that using the order of an organism as a definition of definitive routes of infection is a viable scientific tool? My thought is that bio immunity is complex. Take precautions, be humane, but do good out there.
- What are your thoughts?
New Information not available at the time of this page creation:
And here is a really neat video about bats immunity and adaptations to flight.
Author: Ray Long
Ray Long is an administrator of the Bat Working Group and an editor of this website.