Analyzing Risk of SARS-CoV-2 ‘Spillback’ into North American Bats

NEW YORK – September 3, 2020 – To think of zoonotic disease risk as a one-way street from animals to humans is to miss the bigger picture. Humans are just as capable of spreading disease to animals, and EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit working at the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health, is looking to highlight just that with its latest peer-reviewed research, published in PLOS Pathogens Thursday.

Bats are the primary wildlife reservoirs of SARS-related coronaviruses in nature, a group that contains SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But there is no evidence of bats living in North or South America having any exposure to SARS-related coronaviruses. With more than 13 million cases of COVID-19 in North and South America alone, there is a real risk of humans introducing the virus into one of the more than 40 bat species living in North America, or to other wildlife species.

“More research is needed to determine whether or not North American bats could, themselves, serve as wildlife reservoirs for the virus that causes COVID-19,” lead author and EcoHealth Alliance Vice President for Research Dr. Kevin Olival said. “But that the threat exists should be enough to warrant precautions to avoid spillback.”

It’s currently unknown whether or not bat populations themselves could be impacted by the virus, and this is of concern for a group of animals already severely impacted by another emerging disease, White Nose Syndrome. In addition, the ultimate concern for human health, should North American bats pick up SARS-CoV-2 from humans and be able to transmit the virus from bat to bat, is that a new SARS-CoV-2 reservoir may be established, allowing the virus to jump back to humans at a later date.

“Disease investigators aren’t the only people to have regular contact with bats. Professionals in wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife and pest control, and those conducting ecological research all come into regular contact with bats,” EcoHealth Alliance president and co-author Dr. Peter Daszak said. “These recommendations aren’t just for those with professions linked to bats. The safest precaution, not just for people but for bats as well, is to avoid contact with bats unless necessary.”

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bat Conservation International, and various academic institutions from the U.S. and around the world collaborated on this research.

About EcoHealth Alliance:
Building on 45 years of groundbreaking science, EcoHealth Alliance is the premier nonprofit organization committed to a One Health approach to track the migration of deadly viruses from animals into humans. EcoHealth Alliance research has led to major breakthroughs on the origins and spread of new and emerging diseases like Ebola, SARS, MERS, Nipah virus, and, now, SARS-CoV-2. EcoHealth Alliance works globally in hotspot regions where the threat of outbreaks is highest. Through innovations in research, training, capacity building, and policy initiatives, we develop tools and interventions to prevent pandemics and promote conservation.
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