Bat study on hold over fear of spreading virus — to the bats

In a somewhat ironic twist, a project to track evicted bats has been postponed over fears humans could transmit COVID-19 to fragile Canadian species.

Scientists worry humans could transmit COVID-19 to endangered bats in Canada

Hands-on bat research by the Canadian Wildlife Federation has been postponed over fears humans could transmit COVID-19 to the flying mammals. Little brown bats, pictured, are listed as endangered in Ontario. (Peter Thomson/Associated Press)

A research project to track what happens to bats after they're evicted from attics and belfries in Ottawa has been postponed due to COVID-19.

The fear isn't that humans could catch the virus while handling the flying mammals, but that they could transmit it to the bats, some species of which are endangered.

"It's basically too risky … to go ahead with any bat research," said James Pagé, a species at risk and biodiversity specialist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF).

The decision follows a directive from the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-op and Environment and Climate Change Canada that all research involving close proximity to bats be postponed.

The tables have turned. Usually people are concerned about bats giving us things.- James Pagé, Canadian Wildlife Federation

It's an ironic twist of science, since it's believed the novel coronavirus originated in bats in Asia.

"When I heard about the COVID situation I [said], please don't come from bats. They already have bad enough PR and are disliked in general," Pagé said. "And then I heard it was from bats, and I'm like, there we go."

James Pagé from the Canadian WIldlife Federation shows off a bat house, which can hold up to 300 of the flying animals. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"The tables have turned. Usually people are concerned about bats giving us things," Pagé said. "It's no secret bats can carry disease. Bats actually have a really good immune system, which is why they can be carriers … but aren't affected."

Field research for the eviction study in Manotick involved capturing bats in a net, fitting them with a tiny radio transponder, then locking them out of their roosts and tracking them to their new digs.

Last year's survey tracked relatively plentiful big brown bats, most of which found a new roost within a few hundred metres of their former home. This year, the plan was to compare their success to that of the more elusive little brown bats, which are endangered in Ontario.

Ironically, the bat research has been halted over fears humans could transmit COVID-19 to Canadian bat species. It's believed the novel coronavirus originated in a wildlife market in Asia, possibly through an infected bat. (Brock Fenton/UWO/CWF)

"We're actually really concerned about people giving [COVID-19] to a bat, especially in Canada where we have white nose syndrome, a fungus that's really affected numerous bat populations. We don't want to give them any extra thing that this already declining population can't handle," Pagé said.

Pagé and his team had already identified a nest of little brown bats in Ottawa, but the pandemic brought the bat project and a separate turtle count to a screeching halt, or at least a slow crawl.

"It put everything up in the air. Normally we would hire summer staff and have teams of researchers go out in a vehicle together to do field surveys," Pagé said.

The CWF was able to adapt its turtle survey by limiting the number of researchers allowed in each vehicle. "We will be hiring on just one other summer staff instead of several," Pagé said.

The interrupted study involved capturing, tagging then evicting bats from an attic or belfry, then following them using a radio transponder. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

There are no such fears of passing COVID-19 on to the turtles, Pagé said.

"That's unlikely. There has been some work done on that and it's not shown to be transmitted to reptiles."

Meanwhile, it's known that bats are susceptible to other coronaviruses. Pagé said there is research being done to determine if this specific novel coronavirus is transmissible to Canadian bat species. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done a risk assessment on human-to-bat transmission, determining the risk is low and further mitigated by the use of personal protective equipment. But "until we hear otherwise we're going to be holding off on … getting up close with bats," Pagé said. "We can keep this site in mind for next year."

This bat has white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that has killed millions of bats across North America. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Despite the shutdown of the project, Pagé is optimistic. He and his team are pivoting away from live capture and toward a citizen-science model of research that allows people to keep their distance while participating in a bat count.

"This is a great opportunity to engage people and maybe help change perceptions about bats," he said.

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