Protecting bats from coronavirus

Researchers and rehabilitators could spread virus to wild bats, expert warns.

Biologists and wildlife rehabilitators are being urged to not handle bats while the COVID-19 pandemic rages across North America to protect the flying mammals and long-term ecological health.

University of Winnipeg biologistCraig Willis spoke to CBC, who noted that “while the chanceof an infected biologist passing on COVID-19 to a bat is remote, the result would be disastrous.”

Bats are known to be potential sources or play a role in their spread; it is suggested that both the last SARS and MERS coronaviruses jumped from bats to other mammals before moving to people. But experts agree: bats are not to blame for the coronavirus, humans are.

According to the CBC article, Willis says the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-Operative is planning on calling on all field studies involving bats to be suspended. The need for and lack of availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for field biologists who may be handling bats is also called into question in the CBC article.

“I think one of the things that happened over the course of my career is we've started to recognize that people studying wildlife should probably do a little bit better job of wearing personal protective equipment when we're working with our animals,” Willis said. "It's very important to keep (PPE) in reserves for our frontline public health people. So that's also one of the reasons we're recommending not handling bats at the moment.”

Bats and biologists are continuing to manage White Nose Syndrome, a disease that severely impacts hibernating bats.

Wildlife rehabilitators and humane wildlife removal operators, however, typically aren’t handling bats by choice, but out of need. Those who must handle bats should be wearing gloves (preferably bite resistant) and other PPE, particularly if they may be ill from or have not fully quarantined from COVID-19. The Fur-Bearers will reach out to experts for more on this specifically.

None of this means bats should be feared or worried about. In fact, bats are an extremely important part of our ecosystems and generally harmless to people. But caution is key during the pandemic.

"Even though the risk is low,I think the consequences for public health, but also bat conservation and people's opinions of bats, would not be great. People are just being extra, extra careful,"Willis told the CBC. "We know that this virus can infect a range of species, or at least it appears that way. The question of course is …if it did spill back into bats or other wildlife, we would end up with another wildlife reservoir that could in turn pass it back to people.”

Homeowners should never handle bats without explicit direction from a professional. Please contact a humane wildlife removal company or your local wildlife rehabilitator for information.

Bat photo by William Weber

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