Various bat species in South Carolina have been decimated by White-nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that infects bat skin during hibernation and causes bats to burn fat reserves and starve.
Now the survivors face COVID-19, a new challenger that wildlife biologists fear may entirely wipe out certain bat populations — and a disease whose origin and spread among humans, sparking the deadly pandemic that's reshaped modern life, is believed by some scientists to trace to bats in other parts of the world.
Bat-netting efforts in South Carolina to study, test and track species have been led for years by the state Department of Natural Resources in conjunction with volunteer groups, but the program has been put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic out of an abundance of caution.
Officials are awaiting an assessment to see if humans can transmit the virus to bats.
The change has not been to keep bats away from people but the other way around, said bat biologist Jennifer Kindel, who leads studies across the state specifically to measure the effects of White-nose Syndrome in hopes of eventually finding a solution to protect the bats.
"We’re wondering about the health of our bats," Kindel said. "Very little is known about how the coronavirus may affect American bats. We don’t know if they're susceptible to infection or if they might die from the disease."
South Carolina's bats play an essential role in the environment by eating insects and pests that threaten farms and produce. Bats save South Carolina’s agricultural industry more than $115 million each year in pest-suppression services, according to the DNR.
Other bats across the world also help with pollination and seed dispersal.
The U.S. Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and others have brought together a team of experts to conduct a rapid assessment of risks for transmission of the novel coronavirus from human to bats in the U.S. The results are expected to be released in about a week and should provide further guidance as to risks for bats in close proximity to humans, Kindel said.
As for the risk for humans in contact with bats, Kindel said the specific origin of the novel coronavirus has not been definitively pinpointed, and she said there's no evidence confirming that bats transmitted COVID-19 to humans.
Some scientists believe bats were likely the original host of the virus, and they believe it's possible the virus went from bats to another animal species before spreading to humans.
The Washington Post reported last week that a team of scientists based in Wuhan, China, had spent nearly a decade studying diseases in bats while in the process incidentally risking the spread of those diseases.