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Wildlife Officials Work To Prevent Spread Of COVID-19 To Local Bats, Animals

Picture of bat being held
National Wildlife Heath Center
The new coronavirus is believed to have originated in bats

Scientists believe the virus that causes COVID-19 came from contact with a wildlife species in China, likely bats. So can we catch the virus from animals or transmit it to them?

WUSF's Steve Newborn talks with Jonathan Sleeman, center director of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center, in Madison, WI.

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He says people can still interact with their pets, but it's best to avoid sick animals - especially bats. He fears it could be transmitted in the U.S. into the bat population, and possibly other wild animals.

What is the origin of this virus?

The genetic analysis of this virus indicates it is most closely related to a strain that's found in horseshoe bats in China," Sleeman said. "Now, we don't know the exact origin of this virus, but it does seem likely that it originated from a wildlife species, possibly transmitted through some sort of intermediate animal and then transmitted to humans.

We've heard about a tiger in the Bronx Zoo and other cats who contract to this. Are we really at risk by interacting too closely with animals?
Right now, there's no no evidence in the United States that people can contract this virus from animals. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The concern is people potentially giving the virus to the pets or to other animals.  The virus is now a human virus, it transmits from humans to humans, and there's no evidence that the animals are source of virus here in this country.

So are you recommending that anyone dealing with animals in a veterinary setting wear face masks and gloves, that sort of thing?

The CDC is the authority on this information and they have a lot of a good information on thier website, but in general, they are recommending people avoid direct contact with a pets if they are sick or showing signs of COVID-19. The cases of COVID-19 in animals is still very rare. People can still interact with their pets, people can still often keep pets in the home . Now, for wildlife out of sort of general principles, it's always good to keep a safe distance from wild animals. If you see a sick or dead wild animal on the road or outside, it's best to call the state wildlife agency to help you know so they can take care of it. So for wildlife, yes, it's best best keep a distance. But that's that's a general recommendation we issue all the time.

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Your team is looking at assessing these risks and coming up with some kind of guidelines for dealing with animals?  

One of the concerns that we have because it does appear to be a virus of bat origin, that if it gets into bat populations in the United States that it could become established in those bats.  Because bats are natural reservoir hosts of this virus, it could potentially transmit amongst bats without them showing any clinical signs. Right now there's no evidence that's the case. We don't know what those risks are. But a lot of management agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife management agencies,  are recommending that people not handle bats at this moment in time, inclucing researchers and managers who are going out into the field while we assess these risks, to see what mitigation strategies we may need to implement. So do we need to have some additional protective measures in order to prevent that from happening? So we were eliciting that information from a group of subject matter experts to give us the best information that we have regarding those potential risks.

Bottom line here is we really need to be careful but we don't need to take too many extra precautions around animals is that what you're saying?

If someone in a household is sick or has been diagnosed with COVID-19, it is best that they avoid direct contact with their pets. Even though it is fairly rare that the disease can be transmitted to pets as you mentioned there have been some cases in some cats. So most of these recommendations are issued out of an abundance of caution.

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Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.