The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic brings with it a lot of misinformation, myths and other unknowns to tackle, including the origin of the disease. WVU Extension Service Wildlife Specialist Sheldon Owen notes that to understand how bats are related to the COVID-19 outbreak, you must first understand a little bit about zoonotic diseases.

What is a zoonotic disease?

“A zoonotic disease is a disease that can be passed from animals to humans. There are basically five types of organisms that cause diseases: viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites (protozoans and worms) and prions. Diseases can circulate in animal populations for years, with little to no sickness, then one day under the right conditions, the disease is transmitted from animals to humans.”

How often do these diseases hit human populations?

“Unfortunately, zoonotic disease outbreaks are not uncommon. A few examples of zoonotic pandemics are the Ebola outbreak of 2014, Swine Flu (H1N1) outbreak in 2009, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, another coronavirus) in 2003, HIV/AIDS epidemic and even the Spanish Influenza of 1918. In West Virginia, we have other zoonotic diseases that you may be more familiar with, such as Lyme disease or rabies.”

Which animals did COVID-19 come from?

“It is suspected that COVID-19 originated in bats. Bats are a carrier of many zoonotic diseases. Here in West Virginia, bats are known to carry rabies, although it is only in a small portion of the bat population (less than 1%). There are more than 1,300 different species of bats, and they make up about 20% of all mammalian species around the world. They have a global distribution, and are highly mobile since they have the ability to fly. Their biology makes them perfect vessels to carry various diseases.”

“Both wild and domestic animals carry many types of diseases. In most cases, these diseases are specific and restricted to their wild or domestic hosts. However, diseases periodically “spillover” from animals to humans. Common human activities, such as domestic animal production, small backyard livestock operations, fairs, petting zoos and harvesting wild animals for food, as well as the trade of wild animals (mostly illegal in the U.S.) and encroachment of humans into wildlife habitat, can increase the chances of exposure and spillover.”

If COVID-19 came from bats, should our management of bats be changed?

“Bats still provide great ecological services around the world, such as insect control, pollination and seed dispersal. The only mammals capable of true powered flight, they are a diverse group of animals with drastic differences in their physical appearance, behavior and natural history.”

“All 12 species of bats found in West Virginia feed on insects. They are voracious eaters, consuming 50 to 75 percent of their body weight in insects each night. Many species of agricultural pests have been found in the diets of bats including June beetles, click beetles, leafhoppers, plant hoppers, spotted cucumber beetles, green stinkbugs and corn earworm moths. Published estimates of the value of pest suppression from bats averages about $74 per acre; therefore, the value of bats to the U.S. agricultural industry is about $22.9 billion per year.”    

“Yes, bats can carry zoonotic diseases that can infect humans, but their benefits far outweigh their dangers. Remember that infection is preventable. Don’t handle bats. If you must pick one up, use gloves or a shovel. Just know that we are far better off learning to coexist with bats. The key is to study and better understand bat biology and distribution, as well as their potential as disease hosts.” – Sheldon Owen, WVU Extension Service Wildlife Specialist

More information about bats and zoonic diseases can be found on WVU Extension Service’s wildlife page. West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.