Edmonton

COVID-19 not yet identified in North American bats, Alberta expert says

A bat expert in Alberta says biologists are still concerned that bat populations in North America could contract COVID-19.

'In bats compromised by white-nose syndrome, if [COVID-19] does affect them, it could be devastating'

Hands-on bat research has been postponed across North America over fears humans could transmit COVID-19 to the flying mammals. (Peter Thomson/Associated Press)

Biologists are still concerned that bat populations in North America could contract COVID-19, an Alberta bat expert says.

So far, the specific strain responsible for COVID-19 has not yet been identified in North American bats, Lisa Wilkinson, species-at-risk biologist and provincial bat specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks, told CBC's Edmonton AM on Thursday.

But as the mammals can contract coronaviruses, they may be susceptible to the one that causes COVID-19. 

"The first question was, 'Can our bat population be affected by it? If so, what will the impacts be? Will they get sick? Will they die?'" Wilkinson said. 

She said it's particularly worrisome for bat populations already affected by white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that can weaken bats' robust immune systems.  

"Particularly in bats compromised by white-nose syndrome, if [COVID-19] does affect them, it could be devastating," Wilkinson said, pointing out there are no known cases of white-nose syndrome among Alberta's nine bat species.

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, biologists and wildlife-rehabilitation volunteers were warned not to handle bats to reduce the possibility of infecting millions of the flying mammals in North America. 

Research requiring the handling of bats stopped as a task force in the United States was assigned to research COVID-19 and bats.

The task force found that people carrying the disease could infect bats, Wilkinson said. 

University of Winnipeg biologist Craig Willis told CBC News in April that while the likelihood of passing COVID-19 to a bat is remote, the result would be disastrous.

The fear is millions of North American bats could become hosts for COVID-19.

"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. So people are just being extra, extra careful," Willis said in an interview.

Researchers in the U.S. did discover that risk of infection "was greatly reduced if they wore proper PPE [personal protective equipment] ... and followed all proper cleaning protocol," Wilkinson said.

It's only now that jurisdictions like Alberta "will be looking at requests to do research handling bats, as long as people are able to demonstrate that they can follow these very strict protocols and the work is really warranted as well," she said. 

The province's bat expert says people shouldn't worry about bats but recommends keeping a safe distance.

"Based on the science we have right now, I don't think that should change anything in living with bats around us."

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