Misunderstood bats getting a bad rap due to coronavirus, says Winnipeg biologist

In this Feb. 8, 2017 photo, a northern long-eared bat, is held at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, in Cleveland. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Tony Dejak

A University of Winnipeg biologist who runs the school’s bat lab says the flying mammals are getting a bad rap due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Craig Willis, the U of W’s “bat prof,” told 680 CJOB that COVID-19 fears have caused people to worry unnecessarily about bats due to persistent reports that they might be the source of the virus.

“I think it’s been widely reported that an ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that’s causing COVID-19 — probably came from bats,” he said.

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“It’s closely related to a bat coronavirus from the Chinese horseshoe bat. There was probably another species in between bats and people, but that doesn’t stop folks worrying, I think, about bats as a source of viruses.

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“We don’t want people fearing bats unnecessarily and taking actions that can harm their populations, because they’re already in trouble.”

Willis said his lab has been studying bat diseases — specifically one that has killed millions of North American bats, called wet-nose syndrome — for years, so the current pandemic is of particular interest.

Manitoba, he said, has six species of bat, most of which live outside of Winnipeg, or only pass through the city during migration. While there’s no evidence that animals in the province are carrying COVID-19, there’s a chance that the misunderstood creatures could get the virus… from humans.

“We’re concerned about the potential spread of the virus from people to wildlife, including bats,” said Willis.

“We know that cats are probably susceptible, we know ferrets are susceptible… which means probably a range of species could get this from us. We don’t want bats to get this from us.”

To prevent this, the bat lab has stopped handling the animals for the time being, rather than using personal protective equipment that would better serve health-care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

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Instead, the lab is reaching out to the community to help with the Neighbourhood Bat Watch and report sightings of bats so the lab’s work can continue from a distance.

“They’re ecologically and economically important. We know that in North America, bats save farmers billions of dollars in insect control and they reduce the amounts of pesticides we have to use, so we really want to protect their populations.

“Because we can’t do fieldwork anymore, we’re really relying on citizens.”

Click to play video: 'Answering kids’ COVID-19 questions: Did a bat start the outbreak?'
Answering kids’ COVID-19 questions: Did a bat start the outbreak?

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