Review of COVID-19 Impacts on Bat Research and Conservation

3/17/2021
By Merlin D. Tuttle

Throughout the history of bat conservation disease scare campaigns have been a dominant impediment to progress. Misrepresented warnings of scary diseases, such as SARS, SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), MERS, and Ebola threaten to reverse decades of conservation progress. To date there is no evidence of transmission of any of these diseases from a bat to a human. Let’s remember that millions of bats have long histories of living in cities without evidence of resulting pandemics.

Currently, we are told not to blame bats for being dangerous, that they are essential to healthy ecosystems and shouldn’t be killed. This message is eroded when accompanied by disclaimers urging us to stay away from bats, and images of researchers in protective uniforms working with bats. We should avoid mixed messages, mindful that people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear. The survival of our expanding human population may depend on learning to live in harmony with nature. 

Fear of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from humans to bats has led government agencies in many countries to prohibit, or severely limit, research that requires physical capture. We had early concerns about premature action that could prove worse than none at all. It saddens me greatly to see the public, as well as a new generation of young scientists, made needlessly fearful of bats. Historically, bats have one of our planet’s finest records of not spreading disease. In my 60-year career studying bats, I’ve known hundreds of colleagues, none of whom were protected against, nor contracted, any of the so-called “emerging diseases.” For decades, bat researchers and rehabilitators worldwide, like veterinarians, have been vaccinated for rabies to protect against defensive bites from unfamiliar animals we handle.

I’m far safer in the field with bats than in a city with fellow humans. And where I’ve been, bats are safer due to my educational efforts that reduced fear–the opposite of what happens where people receive exaggerated warnings about speculated diseases. I provide the following questions in hope of contributing to a healthier, happier future for all concerned.

Questions to Ask

  1. Is transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to bats possible?

The big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), the first, and thus far the only, American species tested for susceptibility, was found to be highly resistant1. We are unlikely to resolve the question for all species, so it’s time to ask the following questions.

  1. Even if COVID can be transmitted from humans to bats, can it be prevented by restricting researchers?

Veterinarian Renee Schott has pointed out that we can’t control the public’s interactions with bats. She believes that wherever bats are susceptible transmission cannot be prevented. Thousands of people worldwide encounter bats that enter their homes and in the Old-World bats are widely hunted for food. Most people aren’t even aware of restrictions now being applied to professional bat workers. In addition, domestic cats are effective transmitters2 that commonly hunt bats.

  1. Are costly restrictions that severely limit research and training doing more harm than good?

Early COVID precautions seemed prudent. However, a review of unintended consequences suggests that restrictions on bat workers may be providing bats the wrong kinds of protection. Widely implemented guidelines requiring sterilization of equipment, use of protective gear, and avoidance of handling bats, are causing unanticipated problems. For example, they have forced termination of vital training workshops, seriously compromised essential field studies, and caused graduate students to abandon conservation-relevant projects. Bat rehabilitators cannot respond to public requests for assistance, leaving untrained individuals to take unnecessary risks. And conservationists are required to wear masks and other protective gear that heightens public perceptions of bats as dangerous.

Based on these considerations, it seems undeniable that all concerned would benefit from a return to pre-COVID practices: universal pre-exposure rabies vaccination, use of gloves to the extent feasible to minimize bites, and education for bat workers regarding areas and actions of unique risk.

We’d like to hear about your experience with restrictions on bat work. Please fill out and share this brief survey. 

References

  1. Hall, J. S. et al. Experimental challenge of a North American bat species, big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), with SARS‐CoV‐2. Transboundary and Emerging Diseases tbed.13949 (2020) doi:10.1111/tbed.13949.
  2. Shi, J. et al. Susceptibility of ferrets, cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals to SARS-coronavirus 2. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/03/new-ebola-outbreak-likely-sparked-person-infected-5-years-ago.