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Assessing the risks posed by SARS-CoV-2 in and via North American bats — Decision framing and rapid risk assessment

June 2, 2020

The novel β-coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, may pose a threat to North American bat populations if bats are exposed to the virus through interaction with humans, if the virus can subsequently infect bats and be transmitted among them, and if the virus causes morbidity or mortality in bats. Further, if SARS-CoV-2 became established in bat populations, it could possibly serve as a source for new infection in humans, domesticated animals, or other wild animals. Wildlife management agencies in the United States are concerned about these potential risks and have begun to issue guidance regarding work that brings humans into contact with bats, but decision making is difficult because of the high degree of uncertainty about many of the relevant processes that could lead to virus transmission and establishment. The risk assessment described in this report was undertaken to provide management agencies with an understanding of the likelihood that the various steps in the causal pathways would lead to SARS-CoV-2 infection of North American bats from people. This assessment focused on the active season for bats in the temperate zone of North America (April 15 through November 15), and used Myotis lucifugus (little brown bats) as a surrogate species. At the time of this work (April 2020), no empirical data about the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on North American bats were available, so a formal process of expert judgment was used to elicit estimates of the underlying parameters. Twelve experts in bat ecology, epidemiology, virology, and wildlife disease from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia participated in the elicitation. A Monte Carlo simulation model was used to integrate the parameter estimates elicited from the experts and to predict the likelihood of exposure and infection in bats through a series of transmission pathways, with particular attention to capturing uncertainty in the predictions.

Given the current state of knowledge as expressed by the expert panel, the results of this assessment indicate that there is a non-negligible risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to bats. For example, if a research scientist were shedding SARS-CoV-2 virus while handling bats under the field protocols used in North America prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the risk model indicates that 50 percent (uncertainty, 15–84 percent) of those bats could be exposed to virus, and 17 percent (uncertainty, 3–51 percent) could become infected. Use of personal protective equipment, especially a respirator, is expected to reduce the exposure risk. The expert panel estimated that exposure risk from research scientists could be reduced 94–96 percent (uncertainty, 86–99 percent) through proper use of appropriate N95 respirators (a type of mechanical filter worn over the nose and mouth), dedicated clothing (such as Tyvek coveralls), and gloves. Should any North American bats become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the expert panel estimated that there is an approximately 33-percent chance the virus could spread within a bat population.

This study, conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, identified several critical uncertainties that could affect the estimate of risks associated with SARS-CoV-2 entering bat populations—notably, the underlying probability that a human would be shedding virus while working with bats, the likelihood of the virus replicating in bat tissue, and the likelihood of transmission of the virus within bat populations. Ongoing empirical work during May–October 2020 may shed light on these issues. Follow-up work is needed to better understand the probability of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to bats from the general public; the manner in which the probabilities of exposure, infection, and transmission would differ during hibernation compared to the breeding season; and the likelihood of important effects, like morbidity and mortality in bats, the possibility of zoonosis from a North American bat reservoir, and effects of and on other wildlife.

Publication Year 2020
Title Assessing the risks posed by SARS-CoV-2 in and via North American bats — Decision framing and rapid risk assessment
DOI 10.3133/ofr20201060
Authors Michael C. Runge, Evan H. Campbell Grant, Jeremy T. H. Coleman, Jonathan D. Reichard, Samantha E. J. Gibbs, Paul M. Cryan, Kevin J. Olival, Daniel P. Walsh, David S. Blehert, M. Camille Hopkins, Jonathan M. Sleeman
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2020-1060
Index ID ofr20201060
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Wildlife Health Center; Patuxent Wildlife Research Center; Eastern Ecological Science Center