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These Savvy Humans Are Saving Bats From Human COVID

It’s time to release rehabbed bats in Vermont, but this year’s bats are fluttering away from a very different rehabilitation experience.

They’ve met humans who are gloved, masked, gowned and isolated from the rest of humanity. They’ve been living on sanitized surfaces. And like many of us, they’ve been poked with cotton swabs—tiny bat swabs in their case—and tested for COVID-19.

“Prior to COVID-19 coming along, the issue was always, Did the human come in contact with a bat which might have been a rabid bat?” said Barry Genzlinger, president of the Vermont Bat Center.

“Now we have a whole different set of things we have to be concerned about, not because bats are going to give something to humans, but because humans might have been infected with the COVID virus and could give it to our North American bats.”

While these bat saviors care deeply for bats, their effort is designed to protect humans too. Scientists worry the virus could establish what they call a “reservoir” in North American bats, from which it could mutate, pass through intermediate species and re-infect humans.

“The idea of reservoirs, generally, is the reservoir (species) is not killed by the virus,” said Bill Kilpatrick, an Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Vermont, speaking in a webinar hosted by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.

“It may be made sick by the virus, but that’s not a good evolutionary strategy for the virus to kill its reservoir. If it does, it dies out, so usually there’s this co-evolution between the virus and its hosts.”

So far, bats seem unaffected by SARS-like COVID viruses (COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2), Kilpatrick said, though scientists aren’t sure how every species will be affected by SARS-CoV-2.

In addition to serving as reservoirs for viruses, bats are reservoirs of evolutionary intelligence on viral immunity. They may hold the secret to keeping viruses from becoming virulent in humans too.

Most research has focused on transmission from wildlife to humans, but scientists at Tufts University are studying transmission from humans to wildlife.

“Through the project, we have tested nearly 300 wild animals from over 20 species,” said Tufts researchers Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki. “So far, none—from bats to seals to coyotes—have shown any evidence of COVID-19 by swab or antibody tests.”

For COVID to spillover from humans to wildlife, there has to be sustained direct contact to a high viral dose. That’s why the Vermont Bat Center has been so fastidious with the 85 bats it’s releasing this spring.

Some organizations have stopped handling bats altogether, including the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

“We postponed all of our bat handling work last summer, and we are planning to do that again this summer,” said VFWD biologist Alyssa Bennett.

Instead, VFWD is keeping tabs on bats acoustically, listening for different species’ sound signatures and keeping a distanced watch on their roosts. The Vermont Transportation Agency, which encounters a lot of bats in its work, has adopted those strategies too, said Meg Lout, its bat specialist.

Tufts has been paying for COVID testing of wildlife, and it has also given Genzlinger a strategy for approaching the delicate question (among humans) of COVID exposure.

“Somebody calls us up and says, ‘We have a bat, what can we do?’ and back pre-COVID we asked them about the whole rabies thing, but now we have to ask them about some medical information that they may or may not be interested in giving,” Genzlinger said, “and we don’t have any authority to say, ‘You must tell us whether you’ve been exposed to COVID.’”

Instead, Genzlinger asks them if they’d like to take part in a wildlife study.

Read Why Bats Are Not To Blame or watch the VINS webinar on “Bat Conservation In The Time Of COVID”: