Can COVID-19 infect bats in the Southwest? How would that impact the spread of the virus in humans? Those are among the questions two New Mexico State University professors and a researcher from the University Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine hope to answer with a $200,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant.
“I’ve been working a long time on spillback of pathogens,” said Kathryn Hanley, NMSU Regents Professor of biology and co-principal investigator of the project. “We’ve seen SARS-COV-2 in bats, dogs, cats, lions, tigers and even mink. Once a virus gets back into wildlife, it’s hard to find a treatment. SARS-COV-2 can get back into wildlife. My concern is bats.”
Teri Orr, co-principal investigator and NMSU assistant professor of biology who specializes in the study of bats, and Tony Goldberg, co-principal investigator and professor at the University of Wisconsin whose work focuses on the ecology‚ epidemiology and evolution of infectious disease, are Hanley’s collaborators.
Their project focuses on characterizing the susceptibility of North American bats to SARS-CoV-2 infections. One hypothesis they are testing is the susceptibility of 17 targeted species of bat in the Southwest that may be based on genetics, behavior and life stage of each bat species. Another hypothesis is whether bat species with a high prevalence and diversity of native coronaviruses may be resistant to SARS-CoV-2 infection.
“The species we have in New Mexico are extremely social, which is potentially problematic,” Orr said. “Bats don’t social distance on their own. From thousands of New Mexico freetail bats at Carlsbad to the tree bats that only roost as individuals or individuals with offspring, they could play an important role in spreading the coronavirus by how they come in contact with humans.”
Orr and undergraduate biology student Daniel Ibanez and graduate student Lauren MacDonald started field work last summer, collecting bats to sample throughout Dona Ana County and Grants. They also identified sites in Arizona.
“I participate in data collection adventures, where I help by catching bats, and in the processing component, where we collect oral and rectal swabs, wing biopsies and blood samples,” said Ibanez, who graduates with his bachelor’s degree in biology in May 2022. “I’m happy to be a part of this project, especially, as it has real-world implications for this pandemic, but also in that we are learning more about these commonly misunderstood animals.”
“I am obviously interested in whether SARS-Cov-2 has, or has the potential, to spillback into North American bats. However, I am also interested in the other viruses that our bats are carrying,” said MacDonald, who will earn her master’s degree in biology in May 2022. “When studying and understanding these viruses, we have the potential to help both humans and bats. I find these implications in bat conservation an interesting facet of this research.”
The team is very careful in collecting samples. They wear masks, shields and gloves.
“We don’t kill the bats,” Hanley said. “We’ve collected hundreds of bats. Our team is COVID tested the most of any research teams. We are very careful not to have any infectious contact with the bats.”
The team is waiting for results of genetic analysis to understand what shapes the risk of coronavirus transmission in Southwest bats.