Every night Corky Quirk uses tweezers to feed rescue bats mealworms.
“I have a small captive colony of bats that came in with injuries that were such that they will never be able to fly again,” said Quirk, a program coordinator for the Yolo Basin Foundation and a volunteer with the wildlife rescue group Northern California Bats.
“We try to help that animal to recover from whatever ails it and get it to go back out into the wild,” said Quirk.
She’s always trying to change the stigma about bats that popular culture has put on them. Think of Dracula or even Batman. When the link between COVID-19 and Chinese horseshoe bats was suggested, Quirk’s phone started ringing.
“I got calls like, ‘I have a bat that is roosting in my front entryway, and I'm worried that I could get sick from it,’” said Quirk.
One CapRadio listener had a similar question: “Can the bats here in California catch and carry COVID-19? We are not allowed to kill bats. They live behind my swamp cooler.”
And another asked: “I’m a farmer who lives in a rural area and I have a few bats in my attic. Is there any chance this could lead to problems related to COVID?”
The answer isn’t an easy yes or no.
“So, in the meantime, bats that come into our care are staying in our care indefinitely,” said Quirk. “Once a bat heals I am at this point not allowed to release it back into the wild.”
California bats aren’t known to be carriers of COVID-19, says Nistara Randhawa, a self-described bat nerd, a veterinary epidemiologist, and a postdoctoral scholar at the UC Davis One Health Institute.
“The likelihood of California bats having COVID-19 is really low, but we do not know enough to rule it out completely,” said Randhawa. “We are concerned that humans might actually transmit COVID-19 to bats versus bats transmitting to humans in California.”
That’s why the federal Fish and Wildlife Service has asked scientists to halt all bat studies.
“We know wildlife can actually get it from humans,” said bat biologist David Wyatt with Sacramento City College. He’s referring to reports that a tiger and house cats have COVID-19.
“We're just taking that precaution of saying, ‘Now let's not handle bats right now until we know anything more, because we don't know as biologists, whether COVID-19 can actually be transmitted to bats,’” he added.
People can introduce diseases to bats and Wyatt says it’s hard for this to happen, “but once it develops then you have what we're undergoing right now ... a pandemic situation potentially.”
One of those human caused diseases is thought to be white-nose syndrome. The fungus has killed more than 6 million bats in North America and was found last summer in California. The fungus wakes them up out of hibernation, which uses up fat reserves and eventually leads to starvation.
“What the big danger is as people handle bats is that ... we're afraid of transmitting COVID-19 to the bats if they are able to harbor it, which we just don't know,” said Wyatt.
Scientists at UC Davis have studied how COVID-19 could impact animals.
“It's not just that these species have these viruses and just because they have them, you're going to get infected,” said Randhawa with UC Davis. “It's mainly human activities that are causing this perfect storm to occur.”
She says bats are very unlikely to catch COVID-19 in California, and says they could have millions of years of separation from bats around the world on their side.
“They could have evolved and separated a couple of million years ago,” said Randhawa. “So, if you believe that we got such COVID-19 from a bat in China, that doesn't mean that we can get the same virus from bats in California.”
Another factor, she says, is that scientists don’t know the exact prevalence of diseases like white-nose syndrome or COVID-10 and that the federal directive is limiting research on bats.
If people do pass on COVID-19 to bats in California, Randhawa says that would be a travesty.
“We should definitely not villainize bats because they’re really precious,” said Randhawa. “A simple colony of 150 bats can eat up to a million insects a year. They're important for our ecosystem, not just with respect to pest control or insect control, but also for pollination and for seed dispersal.”
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