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Why bat scientists distance themselves socially from their subjects

Winifred Frick likes nothing more than to crawl through caves full of guano and come face to face with bats. As chief scientist at Bat Conservation International, she is on a mission to promote understanding of bats and protect endangered species.

However, for months, Frick avoided investigations that would place her spitting on the bats. His only projects that persist through the pandemic have been carried out from afar, such as the use of acoustic monitors to hear the squeaks and foxes of the animals. In an era of COVID-19, that “practical” approach and other precautions are crucial to protecting bats and people, Frick, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and more than two dozen scientists argue online on Sept. 3. in PLOS pathogens.

Why the call to action? SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably originated in bats in China (SN: 26/03/20). But neither he nor other coronaviruses belonging to the same genus, Betacoronavirus, have been detected in the more than 40 species of bats in North America, although the animals harbor another type of coronavirus. Scientists are not concerned about capturing SARS-CoV-2 from these bats. They are afraid to give it to bats; it’s not an impossibility, the authors argue, given that the United States leads the world in infections, with nearly 8 million as of Oct. 16.

“We can’t tell bats to distance themselves socially,” Frick says. "We want to reduce the possibility of pathogen transfer between animals, full stop." The goal is to prevent viral “spills”.

Biologist Winifred Frick advocates distant research methods and extra protective equipment to protect American bats from the coronavirus.Alan Hicks

The transmission of the man to the bat is not an unprecedented scenario. It is likely that people are to blame for introducing Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes white nose syndrome, to American bats. The disease has killed millions of bats across the United States and Canada since it was first detected in 2006 (SN: 31/03/16).

It is unknown whether bats are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection or whether the virus would make them sick; bats rarely get sick from the viruses they carry (SN: 2/12/20). But infected bats can spread the virus back to humans, the authors say.

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Worse, introducing SARS-CoV-2 to other coronaviruses carried by American bats could provide the ingredients to create a new virus (SN: 30/11/17). Either scenario could trigger pre-existing fears about the spread of bat disease, posing a major hurdle for bat conservationists trying to bolster support for animals.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature's bat group, which includes Frick, initially advocated the practical approach in April. Because so little was known in the early days of the pandemic about the spread of SARS-CoV-2, that group recommended that researchers close any project that involved interacting with bats. In August, the group updated its guidelines to also address caving activities and other activities that could lead humans to bat habitat.

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The guidelines still recommend replacing fieldwork with distant alternatives whenever possible. Picking through guano can identify bat species and reveal the viruses they carry, and cameras located outside caves and bat posts can give a sense of abundance. Scientists can even resurrect evidence of pathogens retained in the preserved tissues of bat specimens in museums.

But not all bat research can distance itself socially, and that means taking pandemic precautions, such as ensuring field teams are not sick with COVID-19 and wear personal protective equipment. Research on white nose syndrome already requires disposable Tyvek suits and gloves to reduce the spread of the fungus. Now, the masks will be a regular part of the set.

For Frick, talking about bats has always been part of being a bat biologist. In addition to having a passion for animals, conservation and human health are inseparable, he says. And bats provide ecosystem services that benefit humans, such as pest control that saves U.S. farmers more than $ 3.7 billion a year, according to a 2011 study in Science. As human populations expand to decrease bat habitat, bats and humans cross more and more, making it more likely that viral overflows and other harmful interactions will occur. The pandemic intensified those risks and, for Frick, put the need to talk "about steroids now."

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