US advises suspending lab testing on bats during COVID-19 pandemic

US government suspends all research involving bats out of concern that humans could pass coronavirus on and make the pandemic harder to contain

  • US government officials have suspended all bat research during COVID-19
  • They fear humans could pass the virus to bats, making the pandemic harder to contain and eventually eliminate
  • Bats are common carriers of hundreds of different coronaviruses, but it’s still unclear what effect the newest form has on them

The federal government has recommended all field testing and research involving bats in the US be suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recommendation came in an email sent to all researchers working on bat-related projects in the US, citing fears that humans could potentially pass Sars-Cov-2 to the animal.

Officials at the US Fish and Wildlife Service fear that if the virus were to jump into bat populations in the US, it could cause a ‘spillback’ effect that might undermine human efforts to contain the virus by creating a new path for re-infection in the future.

The US government requested all research on bats be suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic out of fear that humans might pass the novel coronavirus to bats and make it harder to stop the spread of the disease in the future

‘We know that many mammals are susceptible to infection by a diversity of coronaviruses,’ a Fish and Wildlife spokesperson told the Washington Post in a prepared statement.

‘What is not known is whether the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has the potential to infect, or cause illness in, North American wildlife, including bats.’

Though the exact origin of Sars-Cov-2 is still being investigated, many believe it first emerged in bats in China and then passed on to pangolins, who could have been responsible for the first human infection.

There’s some evidence that humans have the capacity to pass the virus back to other animal species.

There have been documented positive infections in several animal species, including dogs, cats, and a Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo, which officials believe was transmitted by an asymptomatic zoo worker.

Bats are known carriers for hundreds of different kinds of coronaviruses though their immune systems have adapted to show no ill effects from the virus. However government officials worry another disease outbreak, white-nose syndrome, might have left US bats more vulnerable than they’d have otherwise been to Sars-Cov-2

Bats have been well-documented carriers of hundreds of other kinds of coronaviruses before Sars-Cov-2 was discovered, though their immune systems have adapted to tolerate the virus without any ill effects.

However, recently US bat populations have been suffering through a different disease outbreak,  white-nose syndrome, that’s killed more than 5.5million bats since 2006.

Government officials worry white-nose syndrome might have weakened US bat populations and left them more susceptible to the newest form of coronavirus. 

Biologists recently organized a meeting to discuss how they might work to better understand how Sars-Cov-2 affects bats and what safety precautions would allow them to begin researching again.

Those answers may be hard to come up with under a full research suspension.  

‘Unfortunately, there will be a risk for a long time to come, and until we get a handle on this, we don’t know where the true risk will come from,’ Kevin Olival of the EcoHealth Alliance.

‘There’s a human health goal down the line. But the intermediate goal is that we don’t infect other species that we come in contact with.’

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